By Ania Dunlop from Food for Zen for Bikram Yoga NYC
Our health and wellbeing are, to a great extent, the result of our lifestyle choices. As we become responsible adults, it’s easy to loose oneself in the sea of responsibilities, childcare and work obligations. There comes a time when we become exhausted, unable to focus and it’s impossible to know how to feel better, clearer and hopeful again. I have outlined 5 steps to revitalize your health and life. You will notice that all 5 strategies are intertwined and one affects the other. These steps also build on each other, so start with the first and proceed to the next when you are ready. The best part is you can take your health into your own hands, become an “empowered participant” in your healing and start feeling better by making informed choices based on modern medicine and ancient healing techniques.
1. Become a food detective
Undiagnosed food sensitivities can have an effect on everything from your digestive system, joint health to emotional wellbeing. It can sap your energy, lower your immune function and leave you with dull skin and hair or acne. We learn to tolerate our annoying aches and pains and develop tolerance for feeling sub-optimally, but that’s not a way to live. If you suffer from an autoimmune disease (from skin conditions such as psoriasis to thyroid disorders), chronic fatigue, acne, headaches, anxiety, consider doing an elimination diet to find out what’s been bugging you. While the accuracy of testing for food sensitivities has improved recently, the only way you will know for sure if you are sensitive to a specific food is to eliminate it completely. Try eliminating the top allergens for 21 days: gluten, dairy, corn and soy (also nightshade vegetables if you have any join pain problem like rheumatoid arthritis). After 3 weeks, reintroduce these foods one by one over a period of 3 days and watch for symptoms. Eliminating offending foods is the easiest and most effective way to transform your health quickly. Plus it’s free!
2. Heal your gut
If you have food sensitivities, eat a processed diet or have chronic stress in your life chances are your gastrointestinal system has been compromised. Many people today suffer from a “leaky gut”, where the intestinal barrier has become porous, allowing undigested food particles to enter the bloodstream. The body perceives the tiny food molecules as invaders and launches an immune response, which unfortunately results in chronic inflammation inside your body. While inflammation is a good thing when you cut yourself and your amazing body rushes to heal the site of the injury resulting in an inflamed red swelling swoop, chronic internal inflammation has been reported in current research as the source of most modern ailments such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
Healing your gut involves removing foods you are sensitive to (see step 1), eating a clean, whole foods diet with lots of green vegetables and fermented foods, taking a good probiotic and supplementing with fish oil (Omega 3’s have been reported to significantly lower inflammation). You may also consider taking digestive enzymes to help you break down food and glutamine to repair your intestinal barrier.
3. Restore your adrenal health
The adrenals are tiny glands that sit on top of your kidneys and play a major function in helping your body cope with everyday stresses. The adrenal glands produce cortisol, among other hormones, which helps your body deal with stress. However, chronic stress, be it work related or a prolonged unresolved emotional situation, coupled with a nutrient poor diet, will exhaust your adrenals, which will in turn produce abnormal levels of cortisol and other adrenal hormones such as DHEA. Over time, your adrenal glands will have a hard time meeting the high cortisol demand. Without enough cortisol, you may experience poor immunity, fatigue, changes in blood sugar, depression, inability to cope with everyday life, insomnia, brain fog and food cravings. In a nutshell, you are exhausted, unable to make a simple decision and your health concerns keep piling on.
A discussion on adrenals would not be complete without touching on the thyroid since the two are directly linked. As adrenals become exhausted, thyroid function declines which may result in hypothyroidism, a condition where the body is not producing enough thyroid hormones. The symptoms are weight gain, fatigue, depression, hair loss, among others.
Restoring adrenal imbalances takes time and patience. It involves reflecting on your lifestyle and eliminating behaviors that might drain your energy. This might include reexamining your work, life’s purpose and your relationships. Sleeping 8 hours a night is a must. So is eating a nutrient rich diet with enough protein and minimal sugar, making time for meals sitting down, unrushed, chewing slowly. Finally, prioritizing self-care and de-stressing activities such as meditation are critical to healing.
4. Balance your sex hormones
I am talking about testosterone, progesterone, estrogen here…balancing these hormones as you get older is the nirvana to rocking your health since it affects your moods, sleep, libido, skin and hair. Many women in North America are affected by estrogen dominance, a hormonal imbalance that leads to PMS, ovarian cysts, cystic breasts, acne and heavy periods. According to Dr. Northrop, estrogen dominance can also affect the thyroid, blocking the action of the thyroid hormone and possibly leading to mid life hypothyroidism (thyroid pops up again! I told you everything is intertwined). While diet and lifestyle play a role in estrogen dominance, so do environmental estrogens (plastics, cosmetics, pesticides), which are man made chemicals which mimic estrogen in the body and upset its delicate hormonal balance.
Since I want you to be an empowered rockstar, consider reading “Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom” by Dr. Christine Northrop and “The Hormone Cure” by Dr. Sarah Gottfried, both are fantastic reference books. Find an integrative practitioner to test your blood levels. Unfortunately, the conventional medical community rarely focuses on hormone balancing that does not involve drugs. The basis of healthy hormones is a diet full of green and cruciferous vegetables and sufficient protein from wild, free range animal sources (avoid commercially raised dairy and meat, which use synthetic hormones). Finally, a good supplementation program can put you back on track.
5. Detoxify your life and save your liver
Our modern lifestyle exposes us to processed foods, chemicals in our cosmetics, heavy metals, toxins and candida from “living la vida loca”. The liver is the key organ for detoxification, including excess hormones, it breaks down estrogen and other hormones. However, a bad diet full of fat, sugar, alcohol and caffeine can compromise the liver’s ability to maintain a healthy hormonal balance.
Spring is a great time to incorporate a detox program and jump start your energy. While I am not advocating you live on juice for weeks at a time, consider giving up coffee, alcohol, sugar, gluten and dairy for a few weeks and upping your green vegetable intake. Drink warm water with half a lemon when you first wake up and sip dandelion tea a couple of times a day. You will notice that you will have a boost of energy and a greater sense of wellbeing. Post cleanse, incorporate a daily green juice ritual to get proper nutrition, get rid of toxic cosmetics and even more dangerous home cleaning products to avoid build up of toxins over time.