Chapter 1: Creating Health “What you can do, or dream you can do, begin it;Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”
—Goethe, FaustWhen I first saw Ellen as a patient, she was experiencing fatigue, headaches, and exercise-induced dizziness. Her medical doctors had put her on a slew of drugs in hopes of alleviating her discomfort, but her symptoms had only gotten worse. After learning of her lifestyle and diet habits, I wasn’t at all surprised that she was feeling ill. Ellen had been pushing herself too hard, both at work and at home, and eating the all-too-typical local Hawaii diet, which includes lots of sugar, Spam, Portuguese sausage, white rice, soft drinks, and coffee. Once she made up her mind to turn her life around, the results were astonishing. By adopting a healthy diet, eating regular meals, drinking adequate water, and getting enough sleep, she soon discovered that she had vastly more energy, fewer headaches, and symptom-free exercise routines. Ellen now says that she feels like a new person, and much healthier at forty than she did at thirty-five!The Naturally Healthy Lifestyle
Creating great health means making the right choices, but all too frequently my patients aren’t aware of what the right choices are. To help point the way toward optimal health, in this chapter I have outlined a way of life that I call the Naturally Healthy Lifestyle. A lifestyle that I have personally chosen to practice for many years, it has enriched my life and deeply influenced my destiny.
The Naturally Healthy Lifestyle combines elements of both Western naturopathic medicine and ancient Chinese medicine. It consists of an abundantly healthy diet, regular exercise, herbal and nutritional supplementation, and many other approaches. It is about creating a healthy emotional life with loving, fulfilling relationships, enhancing your mental health, and knowing yourself. It means developing a heightened awareness of your health and a conscientious willingness to persevere when it comes to making healthy choices. It entails a level of self-esteem that allows you to make your health your top priority, to commit to taking care of yourself, and to know that you are worthy of your vigilance.
The Naturally Healthy Lifestyle is all of this and much more. If you make healthy choices in every aspect of your life, blending the tools of natural Western and Chinese medicine, the cumulative effect of all of your choices can be extraordinary. I’ve seen people dramatically improve the quality of their lives in countless ways simply by learning how to make the right choices. Often they had been held back for years by physical and emotional imbalances, their potential so blocked by the fog of poor health that they did not know what they were missing. By adopting the principles and practices of the Naturally Healthy Lifestyle, many of my patients have described achieving states of personal empowerment and well-being that they had never known, a new sense of “health” they had scarcely imagined.
The elements of the Naturally Healthy Lifestyle are outlined in this chapter and are further explored throughout the book. For a brief checklist summarizing some of the essentials you need to get started, see Appendix F.The View from the West
From the viewpoint of Western natural medicine, practicing the Naturally Healthy Lifestyle means nurturing your body, mind, and spirit to continually regenerate your health and prevent disease. It means choosing healthy relationships with food, people, exercise, therapies, and just about everything else in your life. It means taking the right supplements to maximize your health and to ensure that you are getting everything you need nutritionally. It includes detoxifying your body and managing stress.
The Naturally Healthy Lifestyle is rooted in both common sense and scientific fact. We know, for instance, that eating an abundance of healthy foods and getting regular exercise can vastly reduce your risks for many chronic degenerative diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis. We also know that decompressing from the stresses in your life on a daily basis can benefit the function of every organ and system in your body. But other, commonly overlooked aspects of your health are important as well. The Naturally Healthy Lifestyle also means making choices about the chemicals you come into contact with in your everyday life. It means minimizing your exposure to environmental toxins and, whenever you can, choosing natural, nontoxic products (for example, makeup, hair color, soap, and household cleaning agents). It means avoiding many items that can compromise your ability to create health.
In the event that you do become ill, the Naturally Healthy Lifestyle includes using natural medicines whenever possible to restore your health and bring your body back into balance. It’s a matter of limiting or eliminating the use of many commonly prescribed drugs such as antibiotics, steroids, and antihistamines. The Naturally Healthy Lifestyle also entails being savvy about your options for professional health care guidance and knowing how to find the most qualified natural medicine practitioner. (See Appendix D.)
Simply put, following the Naturally Healthy Lifestyle means asking yourself, whenever you are considering any dietary option, activity, or form of medicine, how natural it is—and how closely it aligns with your body’s innate ability to generate your health. In essence, it’s about knowing, with each choice you make, whether it will serve your natural capacity to create great health in the long term.
When you create great health, your body sends signals to your brain that can alter your consciousness and have profound effects on your psyche and your sense of self. As you will discover, the Naturally Healthy Lifestyle may also allow you to more fully express your genetic potential, quite literally helping you become who you are. One of my patients has described this feeling as “becoming the me that I always knew was sleeping inside, just waiting to be set free.”The View from the East
From the perspective of Chinese medicine, as from that of Western medicine, the Naturally Healthy Lifestyle incorporates the use of exercise and diet. But the Chinese tradition also includes the ancient principles of Qi, yin and yang, and the Five Elements.
Qi, or vital energy, is critical to the body’s innate ability to manifest great health. According to Chinese medicine, we inherit Qi in our physical makeup from our parents, and we also absorb it from the food we eat and the air we breathe. Qi causes growth and transformation, regulates body temperature, defends the body from foreign invaders such as toxins and bacteria, and governs the movement of fluids throughout the body. (Qi courses through the body in channels of energy called meridians.) You can think of Qi as a deep river of energy, a life-giving force that brings you vitality and well-being. When your Qi is strong and constantly flowing, you exhibit optimal health; but when it is stagnant or weak, you can experience pain, poor immunity, impaired digestion, and many other symptoms. Following the Naturally Healthy Lifestyle will help keep your Qi moving in a healthy, balanced way. As you will see throughout this book, achieving balanced Qi is not a static process but a dynamic one, continually affected by fluctuations in your body, mind, emotions, relationships, and environment.
The principle of yin and yang is another vital aspect of the Naturally Healthy Lifestyle. Yin and yang, the opposites that exist everywhere in the universe, constantly intermingle in nature: all yin contains some yang, and all yang contains some yin. Yin and yang qualities are eternally conjoined; as the scholar Robert Ballou writes, “Out of the chaos which pervaded the primordial universe came Yang, the bright, the warm, the effusive, the heavenly, and Yin, the dark, the secretive, the silent, the deep, the earthly.” The traditional Tai Chi symbol represents yin and yang in perfect harmony; some classic examples of yin and yang counterparts appear below (not shown in excerpt)
Understanding the principle of yin and yang is important because, like everything else in the universe, your body contains both energies. Following the Naturally Healthy Lifestyle will help you keep them in equilibrium. When they are not, your body will attempt to restore harmony, and you will manifest symptoms of this struggle. For instance, if your yang energy is low, perhaps from too much stress, you will feel fatigue; this is your body’s way of crying out for you to nourish your yang by keeping quiet, still, and passive. Or if you are a menopausal woman and your yang energy is in excess of your yin energy, you will experience hot flashes because yang is “hot” and yin is “cold.”
Another essential component of the Naturally Healthy Lifestyle is knowing how to use the Five Elements in your life. Discovering your personality type in the Five Element system is vital to your health—once you understand your body’s unique relationship to the Elements, you can use the system to help balance your emotional and spiritual life and become more conscious of who you are. The Five Elements are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. According to Chinese medicine, these basic properties are found throughout the natural world—and in your body. Each is associated with particular physiological tendencies, emotional needs, psychological traits, and spiritual qualities. You have each of the Five Elements within you, but your personality is generally dominated by one of them, which is your designated type.
The three “Five Elements” charts (not shown in excerpt)
give an overview of how each of the elements reflects your personality, connects with your body, and corresponds to qualities in nature. Take a minute to think about which element is dominant in you. The quality of your voice, for example, speaks volumes about your predominant type. Do you sound most like a Wood type, a Fire type, an Earth type, a Metal type, or a Water type? You probably know someone who can walk into a room and demand attention with the tone of her voice: abrupt, forceful, and loud. She is most likely a Wood type. In contrast, the person with a meek, almost mournful voice is typically a Metal type.
Once you discover which type you are, this book will speak more directly to you, guiding you in your quest to positively affect your health. (In later chapters, you will discover important ways in which each of the elements connects with specific organs, systems, and areas of your body.) You will learn about the connections between your type and important health and mind-body issues, and you will see how following the Naturally Healthy Lifestyle will help keep your dominant element well balanced. Of course, certain aspects of your Naturally Healthy Lifestyle and diet will be emphasized more than others, depending on your type.The Naturally Healthy Diet
As former Surgeon General Everett Koop, M.D., has pointed out, “One personal choice seems to influence long-term health prospects more than any other—what we eat.”1 Your diet can protect your health, maintain your weight, and keep your strength, energy, and vitality at peak. Eating in accordance with the Naturally Healthy Lifestyle—what I call the Naturally Healthy Diet—is designed to maximize these benefits.
This all-purpose diet supports every organ and system in your body, from your heart to your hormonal system, drawing from both the Western and the Chinese medical traditions. The two traditions share the idea that your food can be your medicine, allowing you to nourish your body, mind, and spirit, both in sickness and in health.
You are constantly selecting food from your surroundings and putting it into your body, and in this sense your diet is an environmental factor that affects your health. The Naturally Healthy Diet includes ingesting the very best, healthiest food available to you, because every choice you make about what you eat can influence every cell in your body, profoundly changing your biochemistry. Your diet may even play a key role in your ability to tap into your genetic potential. As leading researcher Jeffrey Bland, Ph.D., points out, your food choices can literally “alter the expression of your genes.”2 This idea gives new meaning to the old saying “You are what you eat.” What you eat may allow you to fully express who you are and change your genetic destiny.
Fully expressing who you are means feeling great in your body. Many women find themselves on a weight-gain roller-coaster when they follow fad diets or take stimulants purported to help them lose weight. When you follow the Naturally Healthy Diet, along with the rest of the Naturally Healthy Lifestyle, you much more easily shed unwanted pounds, creating a harmonious cycle of beneficial eating habits and a healthy, normal weight. The more you eat quality food, the easier it becomes to choose to eat well because you feel better and your cravings for unhealthy foods virtually disappear. You no longer have a desire for the processed, low-nutrient, sugar-laden foods and the caffeine-laced beverages that tend to put on weight and squander your health. The abundant energy you gain from the Naturally Healthy Diet can help eliminate the need for that extra fix of sugar or caffeine.
By blending dietary principles of natural health from Western and Chinese medicine, the Naturally Healthy Diet can help you maintain both your physiological and your “energetic” equilibrium over the long term. It won’t lead to imbalances that could have negative consequences for your health, as seen in many weight-loss diets such as the Atkins diet, which overload you with fat and protein. You can continue to follow the Naturally Healthy Diet throughout your life because it’s easy to maintain, you enjoy the food you’re eating, and you feel great while eating it. And choosing food from nature’s cornucopia in ways that engender your health every day is a fun, creative process.
The View from the West
The Naturally Healthy Diet is a high-nutrient, high-fiber plan that in many ways is the opposite of the standard American diet that many of us were raised on. Instead, it is low in refined sugar, processed foods, and the wrong kind of fats—including saturated and hydrogenated fats—and high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes, and quality fats such as flax, walnut, and fish oils. It places a premium on eating organic whole foods and other healthy foods.
The term whole foods refers to foods in their natural state that have not been altered, processed, fragmented, or mixed with synthetic ingredients. When you eat an apple, for instance, you can see it in its entirety, so you know you are getting all its nutrients. In addition to fruits and vegetables, whole foods include grains, beans and legumes, eggs, and some animal products. Brown rice is a good example of a whole food because its vitamins, minerals, and fiber are intact, whereas white rice is not a whole food because it has been stripped of these ingredients. In some cases, foods that are not whole foods make up part of the Naturally Healthy Diet because they contain original nutrients, fiber, or other benefits from whole foods. Some examples are whole-grain bread, whole-grain pasta, whole-grain cereal, tofu, yogurt, and some oils. Whole-grain bread is one of the best examples of a healthy nonwhole food. (White bread, by contrast, is not as healthy because much of its fiber and nutritional value has been removed, and synthetic vitamins have been added.)
The Naturally Healthy Diet should include three meals and at least two healthy snacks a day. Aim for consistency in your eating habits: your body becomes stressed when you skip meals and allow yourself to feel “starved” for prolonged periods. Skipping meals can also induce low blood sugar, which may include uncomfortable symptoms of light-headedness, weakness, anxiety, and irritability. I recommend that your diet consist of complex carbohydrates, quality protein, healthy fats, an abundance of fruits and vegetables, and plenty of water. Let’s look at each of these major categories and see what they can do for you.
Excerpted from Natural Choices for Women's Health by Dr. Laurie Steelsmith. Copyright © 2005 by Dr. Laurie Steelsmith. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.