I wish I had a time machine so I could go back 11 years ago when I was first diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. I wish I could bump into that 24-year-old version of me who was leaving a rheumatologists office in tears, having just been told she “probably has lupus,” that her immune system was attacking her own body, that there was no known cause and no known cure, that she had bad genes, and that she may end up in a wheelchair, with organ failure, or infertility.
I wish I could tell her about this moment right now, as I sit at my computer, feeling the best I’ve ever felt in my life, with no sign whatsoever of the crippling arthritis that took me to that doctor’s office. Upstairs, my three-month-old, second child, is peacefully sleeping.
I wish I could tell that 24-year-old, devastated me what I know now – that there is an abundance of scientific evidence showing that there is far more that she could be doing for her health than even her doctor was aware of. Simple, inexpensive, and even rather obvious things; things that would make a huge difference to her illness.
Readers who have seen my film The Connection will know that at the heart of my health journey is coming to understand the new evidence proving there’s a connection between our mind and body. The film explores how things like stress, emotions, relationships and beliefs can impact us on a physiological level, right down to our DNA.
As I’ve written about extensively on this blog, this understanding meant also learning about mindfulness, emotional balance, how to nurture positive relationships, and harness the power of belief. Two years ago, shortly after I released the film, blood results came back showing that there was no sign of autoimmune disease activity in my body.
But my story hasn’t ended there. I’ve had health setbacks, and I continue to research the new evidence being published every day showing surprising ways that our mind, body and health are connected. For the last two years I’ve been writing a book about what I did to get well, and how I bounce back in the face of adversity.
So for this week’s blog, I thought I’d share the top five things that I’ve done for my health lately that weren’t covered in my film, that have been making all the difference.
1. GET MORE SLEEP
When I got sick back in 2004 I was chronically sleep deprived. I would lay in bed at night worrying about the things in my past and the things that might happen in my future. When I wasn’t in full blown worry mode, I’d stay up late watching TV, or going out to enjoy myself until the wee hours of the morning.
While many people think that sleep is expendable, it turns out that sleep deprivation doesn’t just potentially shorten your life by increasing your risk of disease and putting your mental health in jeopardy, it also makes you a danger to yourself and to those around you. And it’s not just about good health, it’s also about performing and looking your best.
Sleep is now one of my main priorities. My house glows orange and red after sundown (read more about blue light sleep disturbance here), I meditate or write in my journal before bed to tame my monkey mind, and more often than not, I prioritise getting the eight to nine hours of sleep that my mind and body need.
2. FEED MY BUGS
As Rob Knight, a leading microbe researcher puts it, “The three pounds of microbes that you carry around with you might be more important than every single gene you carry around in your genome.
While many of us think of gut bacteria as being parasites or passengers hitching a ride, these microscopic creatures are more like co-pilots, playing a crucial role in harvesting energy from our diet, protecting us against infections, training our immune system, providing nutrition to cells, influencing the size of our waistline, affecting our resilience to stress, and even influencing our mood and behaviour. Disruptions to the balance of this gut “wildlife” are associated with a range of chronic diseases.
My family and I eat a “Big MAC” diet, which is a simple way of talking about the “Microbiota-accessible carbohydrates” that our bugs can ferment or metabolize. It’s a term coined by Erica and Justin Sonnenburg, a husband and wife duo at Stanford University. Eating more “MACS” can provide more nourishment to the good bugs and improve their diversity which is the key to having healthy microbiome.
In practice, a “Big MAC diet” means eating a lot of diverse and fibrous whole foods – vegetables and fruit, whole grains (like brown rice, oats, rye, and whole-wheat), beans and legumes (like chickpeas and kidney beans), nuts, and seeds.
Further reading about the microbiome on this blog:
Probiotics: The Good, the Bad and the Misleading
Food For Thought: How Gut Bugs Influence Your Mood
Is Your Microbiome the Key to Staying Healthy?
3. MOVE MORE, SIT LESS
I’m not naturally inclined to enjoy exercise and I find it very difficult to put “working-out” anywhere near the top of my priority list when there is work to do, children to care for, friends to see, and a house to maintain. The whole fat-burning, weight-loss argument has never been enough of an incentive for me to keep at it on a regular basis.
But the leading exercise scientists I’ve spoken with recently have convinced me that our need for movement is about so much more than a toned tummy and beefy biceps. In fact, the new science showing a mind-exercise connection is staggering and of all our body parts that can reap the benefits of a good workout, it may be our brain that gains the most.
Unfortunately the simple “30 minutes” a day rule doesn’t really apply when you consider the evidence that is accumulating which links sedentary activities such as watching TV, computer use, driving in a car, and sitting at a desk with an increased risk for developing a host of chronic diseases, regardless of how much exercise you do. To put it another way, every hour of TV viewed after the age of 25 could reduce your life by nearly 22 minutes.
All this has me totally convinced that I need to move more and sit less. So these days, I incorporate movement throughout my day. Not only do I move my body in a variety of ways (everything from yoga to cardio training), but I also work at a sit-stand work station, and make little choices constantly that nudge me into moving more. For instance, I take the stairs not the elevator and park my car in the space furthest from the mall.
Further reading about movement on this blog:
Confessions of an Exercise Loathing Health Journalist
Why Does Getting Outside Feel So Good
Exercise and Weight Loss: Why Your Mind is Your Own Worst Enemy
4. PRACTICE MINDFULLNESS
Ok, so mindfulness was actually covered in my film, but it’s been such a game changer in my life and for my health that it warrants being mentioned again.
When I first got sick, I erred too much toward the chronic long-term stress end of the spectrum. In fact, I was chronically worried about my chronic stress. I also knew that when I was stressed, my health suffered, and that I needed to do something about it.
While not all stress is bad, there is an extensive body of work done by the pioneering husband and wife research team Ronald and Janice Kiecolt-Glaser from Ohio State University that irrefutably links high levels of stress to malfunction of the immune system. Stress also shrinks key regions of our brain that are involved with emotion regulation and impulse control. There is even evidence from research done at the University of California, San Francisco demonstrating that chronic stress can make cells age more quickly. Stress is the reason many of us say we eat too much and sleep too little; it’s the reason we’re distracted, grumpy, impatient, and sick.
So I started using proven, evidence-based ways to change my stress.... And that meant learning all about mindfulness and meditation.
Further reading about stress and mindfulness on this blog:
Change Your Mind, Change Your Stress
How to Meditate: What Type? How Long How Often?
Feeling Blue? Three Meditation Techniques to Try
When Stress Is Good For You
How to Change Your Brain’s Stress Response
Can Breathing Exercises Really Change Your Health?
Why Stress Is Surprisingly Good For You
What a Shark Attack Can Teach Us About Reducing Stress
5. PRACTICE MINDLESSNESS
Did you know that you are aware only of about 10 percent of the 200 choices you make about food every day? In fact, much of what you do every day is not actually driven by your conscious thought, but rather by your unconscious instincts, patterns, and behaviours. And while everyone from Oprah to the Google empire is encouraging you to be mindful, deliberative, and conscious in all that you do at the moment, new research in psychology shows that you can also use your unthinking cues, routines and patterns to significantly change your health behaviour.
Alongside regularly practicing mindfulness I’ve been working on my mindlessness – changing the subtle environmental cues and triggers around me, in order to protect myself in advance and pre-commit to healthy choices rather than letting them influence me in negative ways.
For example, one of my favorite tricks is to keep a bowl of enticing fresh fruit and vegetables on our kitchen bench to inspire healthy snacking and meal planning. Another trick is that I dress in my work-out clothes when I wake up up in the morning if I don’t have an important meeting so that I’m ready to get out and go when the opportunity to move more arises. I also have a sit-stand work desk where I do my writing so I’m not sitting all day. In my home, all the light bulbs in my lamps are red or orange in order to create a sleepy vibe after sunset and block out the sleep-inhibiting blue light.
Further reading about mindlessness and habit change on this blog:
Making Healthy Eating Effortless
How to Make Healthy Habits Stick
Read This Before You Make a New Years Resolution
The Science Behind Breaking Bad Habits
Will vs Skill: Making Healthy Change Last
A final note:
If you’ve read all the way to the end of this rather epic blog post, thank you! I’d love to hear from you in the comments below about what you consider to be the most influential changes you’ve made in your life to benefit your health. Sharing your wisdom will help other readers wanting to make healthy changes last.