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Since an early age, I’ve been contemplating what it takes to be healthy, mostly because I didn’t feel well for a significant portion of my life. My symptoms, which began at age ten with chronic digestive pain, constipation, and malabsorption, were initially attributed to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but their actual cause confounded my doctors. Physicians suggested fiber pills and over-the-counter medications to fix the mystery problem, but none of these worked. Over the years, the symptoms compounded, finding their way from my body to my brain, as depression and bulimia set in. At that point, psychologists offered new recommendations – for antidepressants, counseling, and eating disorder treatment centers.
It was the 1980s, when very few people were talking about gluten, GMOs, or the microbiome. Doctors were generally not yet aware of the link between the gut and the brain. Yet, somehow, as I went from expert to expert, I had a sense that something was happening inside my body that had nothing to do with their “expert” opinions. Because there was no clear diagnosis, I decided to take my health into my own hands. I began researching, and while I found many clues, it would be decades before the answers started coming together for me.
In my early thirties, I received a diagnosis that my doctor believed explained all my symptoms: gallbladder disease. He said that if I didn’t have my gallbladder removed, I’d “never recover.” This was the first diagnosis that seemed interesting to me, because the doctor said, “It used to be that problems like digestive pain, IBS, and eating disorders were symptoms of an underlying condition, not conditions in and of themselves.” However, when I researched gallbladder disease, I found out that surgery was often performed unnecessarily. In fact, we now know that up to 50 percent of patients still have pain after gallbladder removal.
The truth is, I was afraid to have my gallbladder removed. I knew that this organ was undervalued and actually had an important role in digestion. More research in alternative health and nutrition brought me some information that seemed way too simple: Changing my diet and lifestyle could help heal my gallbladder.
I won’t lie; changing my diet and lifestyle was hard – but it worked. I gave up processed foods, sugar, dairy, and gluten. I chose organic foods and began making my meals from scratch, often incorporating kale, collards, and burdock root. Within two months, I no longer had digestive pain. Feeling pain-free and satisfied after eating, I no longer had terrible food cravings, which I had suffered with for some time. The bulimia fell away. Within six months, I was no longer depressed. As my gut healed, my brain was healing. How was this possible? Why weren’t my doctors savvy to this simple solution?
After all, science and medicine often invoke a philosophical principle that honors simplicity: Occam’s razor. This principle says that when all things are equal, the simplest solution is often the best. Yet our society and medical system love complicated solutions – expensive medicines and technology-based protocols – to health problems. What if our answers were already passed down over generations from our ancestors? Could things like sleep, meditation, exercise, positive thinking, and real food – things too simple for modern medicine – be the keys to health and healing?
How thoughts, food, and lifestyle impact your health
In 1990, the Human Genome Project began, with scientists from around the world mapping the human genome sequence, and in 1993 the role of the project was expanded to study how genetics contributes to disease. At this point, most experts believed that the genes we inherit from our parents determine our health. However, by the time the project ended in 2003, what the researchers had found was surprising: There’s something above (or outside) the genes that has a greater impact on our health. In fact, estimates suggest that our genes may only control 15 to 10 percent of our health. The rest of our health – 90 to 95 percent – may be determined by lifestyle factors, such as diet, exercise, beliefs, stress levels, exposure to toxins, and use of recreational drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes.[2,3,4]
I began studying epigenetics and nutrigenomics (how nutrition interacts with genes to affect health) in 2012. My mentors all said the same thing: “Your clients can eat the most pristine diet and take all the right supplements, and still be sick if they aren’t willing to deal with stress.”
This hit home for me, because every time I’d take on way too much in my life, a symptom would show up from my past, like a reminder to get back on track – and if I listened, I’d feel better. Over the years, I would learn to listen to my body’s response to stress and its response to self-care. Eventually, this knowledge changed the way I prioritize my life and how, as a health coach, I support clients in improving their health and well-being.
Stress: A rising epidemic
In the book Measuring Stress: A Guide for Health and Social Scientists, stress is defined as “a process in which environmental demands tax or exceed the adaptive capacity of an organism, resulting in psychological and biological changes that may place persons at risk for disease.” Studies show that stress contributes to up to 90 percent of illness, including leaky gut, IBS, acid reflux, and mood issues, such as depression and anxiety.[6,7,8]
According to the American Psychological Association’s 2015 Stress in America survey, stress is on the rise, and most people feel they aren’t doing enough to manage their rising stress levels. In fact, I think we can all agree that stress is an issue we grapple with daily. Often, we hear about it so much that we forget what it is, at its essence: when we push ourselves beyond our capacity and then pay for it in some way.
Stress isn’t just a problem for individuals. It can affect families, neighborhoods, and organizations. My clients report that most of their stress is work related (this includes the work of stay-at-home parents). Work is a big part of our routine and often takes up the lion’s share of our waking time.
Organizational studies speak volumes about how individual stress affects the well-being of a group. In companies, studies show, stress contributes to job turnover, low morale, poor communication, burnout, absenteeism, medical expenses, and physical pain.[10,11,12] As you can imagine, these issues can cost companies millions of dollars, depending upon the size of the company. When corporate strain increases, employees may feel that they are working in a toxic environment.
Stress can also promote poor diet and lifestyle choices, such as overconsuming caffeine, overeating, consuming fast and processed foods, drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, smoking cigarettes, and allowing insufficient time to sleep. These days, we are also seeing evidence that a poor diet creates physical and emotional stress. For example, unwise dietary choices can cause stress by contributing to nutrient deficiencies and an unnatural brain response. In her book The Prime, neurologist Kulreet Chaudhary, MD, explains that as you consume processed foods, sugar, or alcohol, your brain may experience a huge flood of dopamine. While this may seem pleasurable, it’s actually stressful for your brain, which, when these substances are overused, must continually work to adapt to them.
Stress and the mind-body connection
If you’ve ever had a “gut feeling” or “butterflies in your stomach,” you’ve felt the gut-brain or mind-body connection. There’s a reason for this. The central nervous system (which includes the brain and spinal cord) and the enteric nervous system (found in the gut) are formed from the same tissue in the embryonic stage of development. Connecting your brain, heart, and gut is the vagus nerve – like a telephone line, it carries messages back and forth from the brain to the heart and gut. It also allows the bacteria in your gut to speak to your brain.
Your gut is responsible for 70 to 80 percent of your immunity and approximately 90 percent of your serotonin (the “happiness hormone,” which plays a major role in moods, sleep, self-esteem, learning, and decision making).[15,16] It sends signals to your brain that directly affect feelings of sadness or stress, even influencing memory. In turn, your emotions affect your digestive tract. Anger, anxiety, sadness, joy, and other emotions can trigger symptoms in your gut.
Inside your gut is a community of bacteria that are meant to live in harmony and play a beneficial role in your health and well-being. According to neuroscientists, the gut microbiome acts as auxiliary DNA. Essentially, what you eat influences the makeup of your gut bacteria, and these bacteria can affect how your genes express. In other words, if you are eating a diet that promotes healthy gut bacteria, they can help you attain or maintain a healthy body.
Your microbiome also influences your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which controls your reactions to stress. In addition, it influences your heart health and the brain-gut-microbiota axis, which affects your immune and endocrine systems.[18,19] An important takeaway from studies in neuroscience is that your gut bacteria are constantly speaking to your brain. When the gut microbiome is healthy, it sends happy signals to the brain; when it’s unhealthy, it can send signals of anxiety. Because of this signaling, neuroscientists are starting to investigate how to manage gut bacteria to treat mood and stress-related disorders.
Self-care and mind-body health
The truth is, most of us would love to reduce stress! But according to a 2014 article in Social Work Today, there are serious obstacles that get in the way of self-care: lack of energy, too many responsibilities, fear of appearing vulnerable, and difficulty putting oneself first.
I can attest firsthand to how difficult it was to unwind the cycle of stress I had gotten myself into. I can also attest to the epigenetic healing benefits of prioritizing self-care. To set the stage, I was working twelve-hour days at a highly competitive organization full of type A employees. Added to this was a long list of symptoms and conditions that I had been experiencing:
- Abdominal pain, bloating, and distention
- Bulimia (binge eating and purging)
- Candida overgrowth
- Chronic constipation
- Depression and anxiety
- Food allergy symptoms with almost everything I ate
- Food cravings and constant hunger
- Gallbladder disease
- Hot flashes and night sweats (at 30 years old)
- Leaky gut
- Low stomach acid
- Sleep apnea
- Slow stomach emptying and reduced intestinal motility
- Small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO)
Practicing the following steps helped me reduce my stress levels and greatly improve my health. Over the years, I’ve also worked with clients who have the same types of symptoms, along with alcohol addiction, anorexia, bipolar disorder, and autoimmune conditions. I’ve used these five steps successfully with all of them.
Step #1: Decide You Are Worth It
I’ve noticed that, regardless of finances, most of my clients don’t feel they are worth the time or money it will take for them to heal. I felt this way too, when I first started focusing on healing my body and mind. I noticed that I’d go to the doctor if insurance paid for it, but I wouldn’t spend money or take the time for a massage, acupuncture, or a wellness class.
When I finally got the gallbladder disease diagnosis and realized I had to change my diet and lifestyle, I began to wonder, “Where will I find the time and money to do this?” In order to create the time in my schedule and spend money on my wellness, I had to decide I was worth it. That was when I realized how often my thoughts would start from a place of lack. I was afraid there wouldn’t be enough money or that I wasn’t good enough.
Thoughts of “not enough” are common – and they get in the way of taking care of ourselves. Instead, we take care of work and other people, often ignoring signals that we are overtaxing our capabilities.
To begin on a journey of healing through self-care, make a commitment to yourself that you deserve to feel well, heal, and have a happy life. Here’s an affirmation to say to yourself: “I am worth the time and money spent on my self-care.”
Step #2: Ask and You Will Receive
On the job, most people don’t want to appear vulnerable. The conundrum is that we often must ask for help to create balance in our lives. At home, this may include recruiting the family to help with cooking, cleaning, and other household chores. It can also include asking neighbors to carpool or trade off with childcare, a once-common practice that seems to have virtually disappeared these days. At work, it often means delegating or sharing tasks and projects. If you tend toward the superhero archetype, you have likely taken on way more than is appropriate for one person.
While still at my high-stress job, I began to identify how to delegate some of what was on my over-full plate. One major area of opportunity was my sales responsibilities. Although I headed up products and services in my company, sales were not supposed to be my responsibility. But the sales team loved me, and I became an adjunct sales team member, which took up significant work and travel time. I decided to free up this time for my self-care, which was scary because the sales team included the most influential people in the company.
I went to the executives on my team and asked for help, and one of my colleagues was thrilled to jump at the opportunity. No one thought I was weak for asking. In fact, I was astounded to find that my coworkers began treating me with more respect and valuing me even more. That was a huge lesson!
I’ve seen this play out with clients as well. When they ask for help or delegate tasks, they are often valued more. If you are not sure how this will work for you, I highly recommend practicing what you are going to say or perhaps role playing with a trusted friend or significant other.
Here’s an affirmation you can use: “I ask for help with ease. People value me more when I set boundaries around my time.”
Step #3: Say No to Doing it All
As I got successively promoted, I was shocked to realize I had harbored a hidden belief that getting a raise meant I’d have to work harder. Every time I was promoted, I’d feel more stressed. Finally, I began to ask myself, “What if I am being promoted for the leadership I can bring or for the successes I’ve had due to my approach to work?”
I had to learn how to say no (practice with your friend or significant other, as in Step #2), but, more importantly, I had to learn what to say no to and what to say yes to. To achieve this, I picked up some skills in time management. One of my favorite concepts was the Power of Three, from the book Work Less, Make More, by Jennifer White.
To harness this power, identify your top three activities for the week or your top three career/visibility projects. Then make a to-do list and organize the items under these three top activities. Your goal is to focus 80 percent of your work in these three areas. If an item doesn’t fit into one of them, you may want to ditch it, delegate it, or postpone it. Give more hours to the things that matter most.
As you do this, identify which projects or actions really matter for your work performance/career (the highest payoff items). Write down what you spend your time on and ask yourself: Are you spending time on the things that really matter?
This worked for me and so many of my clients. You might be surprised to find out how many things you’re doing that are unnecessary for success. Once you know your top three priorities, you can begin saying no to things that aren’t critical in favor of the things that matter most to you.
Step #4: Say Yes to Self-Care
Although I used to worry that self-care was selfish, I found the opposite to be true. Once I started taking care of myself by following Steps 1-3, I began to have more time and energy to support others. One of my top acts of self-care was eating better. After researching the work of Dr. Weston A. Price and others, I followed this protocol:
- Vegetables and fruit
- Unrefined, healthy fats
- Sea salt and Himalayan salt
- Organic and non-GMO foods
- Pasture-fed, organic animal protein and organ meats
- Wild-caught fish
- Bone broth
- Homemade meals
- Fermented foods
- Occasional natural, unrefined sweeteners (stevia, raw local honey, maple syrup, dates)
- Refined salt
- Refined sugar (white and brown sugar, agave nectar, high-fructose corn syrup)
- Artificial sweeteners, flavors, and preservatives
- Refined vegetable oils (corn, canola, etc.)
- Processed food and fast food
- Gluten and most grains, cereal, and flour
- GMO foods
- Meat from factory-farmed animals
- Farmed fish
Over time, my leaky gut healed, and many of the symptoms I listed earlier in this article went away. Most surprisingly, my brain began to function better, and I made better decisions. I even tried an experiment: I stopped working nights and weekends – and no one noticed! My work still hit the mark, and everyone thought I was working just as hard. It made me wonder what I had been wasting my time on before. I began to share my techniques with my team, suggesting that they embrace self-care as well, and we created a new team culture. At the end of that year, my team was the highest performing one in the division, and we all got raises and promotions. I was astounded. This was when I realized that self-care is truly critical to success.
I’m not the only one who has realized this. Harvard University researchers did a meta-analysis of data from self-care and wellness programs in corporate settings. Their findings show a significant return on investment. For every dollar spent on self-care programs, medical costs fell by around $3.27 and absenteeism costs fell by about $2.73. Johnson & Johnson’s corporate wellness programs saved the company $250 million in healthcare costs over a decade.
Step #5: Resolve Unfulfilled Desires of the Soul
In Native American medicine, there is a concept called “unfulfilled desires of the soul.” This refers to health issues that arise when we aren’t following our life purpose or sacred path.
It’s not uncommon to start out our adult lives following cultural or social norms to fit in, attain status, or make money. We often make choices based on our left-brain intellect. But unfulfilled desires of the soul are not valued by your intellect. They speak to your intuition, which comes from your right brain, heart, and gut. Your intuition doesn’t care about status or the rules. It comes from a part of you that knows who you really are and what you came here to do. I truly believe that when we have a health challenge, we have an opportunity to transform our lives by resolving unfulfilled desires of the soul.
I came face-to-face with unfulfilled desires of my soul one cold winter morning when I realized the pain in my abdomen was related to fear. I knew it was time for me to leave my job and do what I came here to do – support people in their healing process – but I was afraid. I worried about how I would pay the bills. I worried about people judging me for leaving my job – and I judged myself for being too weak to leave. But I knew, deep in my heart and deep in my gut, that for the sake of my health, I had to leave. The first thing I did was write down my vision for my ideal lifestyle. Then, each morning when I woke up, I envisioned myself living it. I made choices and took action that supported my vision wherever I could. Within a year, I had left my corporate job and was beginning my new lifestyle. I can’t tell you how amazed I was that this stuff works! Today, this type of visioning is some of the most important work I do with my clients.
To understand why, we must go back to epigenetics. Our potential for health or disease is passed down to us through our DNA, but we can help ourselves stay healthy or heal through self-care, keeping ourselves balanced by paying attention to our food, our thoughts, and the lifestyle we create. We get into trouble when we are out of balance, and often the biggest culprit is stress. Unfulfilled desires of the soul create a chronic, low level of stress.
While looking at my clients’ genetic reports, I noticed that they hold a key to what we came here to do. Unfulfilled desires of the soul may linger just below our consciousness, but health issues and symptoms can bring them to the surface. Symptoms often point to gene variances that affect our reactions to stress and can indicate the need for certain food and lifestyle changes. Learning the story of our genes often reconnects us with our ancestors and inspires us to do what we came here to do. This is not an easy process, but it’s a worthy one that can change your life forever.
To illustrate the point, I’ll finish my story. While I had no proof that leaving my job would be a good idea, my intuition told me I had to do it for the sake of my health and well-being. I dove into nutritional and epigenetic research with passion. It was right about that time that I was diagnosed with a form of Ehlers-Dandles syndrome (EDS), a defective collagen (connective tissue) disorder that was behind many of the symptoms I listed earlier. The prognosis for someone like me with EDS who is turning 40 (when everyone’s collagen production is drastically reduced) is not good. The disorder is believed to be incurable. Depending on the subtype of the disease a person has, the body (bones, skin, digestive organs, eyes, heart, etc.) can begin to experience numerous, frightening symptoms.
When my symptoms escalated in my early 40s, instead of feeling distressed, I applied targeted nutrition, supplements, and lifestyle changes to turn them around. The main change I made was adding bone broth and other collagen-rich and collagen-supporting foods to my diet (e.g., organ meats, raw grassfed butter, and foods rich in vitamin C, magnesium, and copper. Today, I support many clients in resolving chronic conditions. It’s almost miraculous to think that following my intuition was just the thing to help save my life and maybe bring hope to others as well.
Your intuition is just as powerful. You came here to do something unique, and your intuition is always guiding you in that direction. Along the way, there will be challenges, and it may be scary. Sometimes, it may seem hard. But no matter what you are facing right now, these five steps can help bring self-care into your life and support you on your path to wellness.
Note: You can download a free “vision exercise” if you sign up for Heather’s newsletter at www.HeatherDane.com.
About the Author
Heather Dane is a certified health coach and 21st-century medicine woman specializing in resolving chronic health conditions, addictions, and out-of-balance lifestyles.
She has worked with many of the great minds in medicine, natural health, nutrition, and energy healing.
Heather is a co-author of several books, including The Bone Broth Secret and Loving Yourself to Great Health (Hay House). For more information, visit www.HeatherDane.com.
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Published in the Price-Pottenger Journal of Health & Healing
Summer 2017 | Volume 41, Number 2
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