If we nurture and hone the strength of our bodies, we can enhance the capacity of our minds for creativity, productivity, and happiness. It can feel overwhelming to try to sift through the mountain of health information on the internet and figure out what is true, what is safe, and what, in particular, will work for you! I’ve summarized the latest research on what you can do, specifically, to be vital and joyful—to manifest your unique healthy body and healthy mind.
Eat well, digest well, feel well.
Food is medicine. Every piece of fruit, every sandwich, and every potato chip that you put into your mouth has complex biochemical messages for your body. Most fruits are anti-inflammatory and prevent heart disease and cancer. Potato chips (because they’re fried and they increase blood sugar) increase inflammation and the risk for heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. When we choose to eat an anti-inflammatory diet—rich in dark-colored fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and healthy fats, such as olive oil or avocados—we reduce our risk of all chronic diseases. And when we limit or avoid inflammatory foods, such as processed foods (especially those with hydrogenated oils), fried foods, and sugar, we further reduce our risk of all chronic diseases.
The first step in nourishing your body is to be choosy about what you put into it. It’s important to keep in mind that foods that work for someone else may not work for you! Be sure you use your own body intelligence to decide, for example, if whole wheat bread makes you feel fabulous (all those B vitamins and great fiber and protein content) or makes you feel ill (because you are gluten allergic or intolerant). The second step is to be sure your body can digest and assimilate those good nutrients. The normal functioning of your digestive tract is absolutely essential to your health, affecting your immunity, your nutritional status, and even your mood—so much so that I often refer to the digestive tract as your abdominal brain.
Several foods and supplements are helpful in maintaining our digestion. As we age, some of us produce fewer digestive enzymes and less stomach acid, which reduces our ability to absorb certain vitamins and nutrients. If you have surprisingly low levels of vitamins D or B12, you may suffer from a lack of stomach acid or digestive enzymes. This may also be the case if you have stomach upset with fatty meals or suffer from loose stools. You can purchase digestive enzymes at any reputable health food or vitamin store and try taking one to two before meals. If you note an improvement in your digestion, or even your energy level, you may want to consider taking them regularly, particularly with large or heavy meals.
Enhancing the gut-brain connection.
Maintaining your gut microbiome (the healthy bacteria that live in your colon) is another important aspect of supporting your digestive health, and, interestingly, your mood. We now know that the health of your gut microbiome affects anxiety, depression, stress, autism, learning, and memory. So how do we help our gut bacteria thrive and improve our brain function? Three steps:
- Avoid antibiotics if at all possible (and the extended use of antibiotic herbs, such as oregano oil, berberine, or grapefruit seed extract, as well).
- Replace your natural bacteria with fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir, miso, tempeh, kimchi, or kombucha. A study in Gastroenterology suggests that fermented foods can moderate our stress and pain responsiveness. After taking antibiotics, or if your digestion is not normal, consider taking a probiotic, such as various strains of lactobacillus or bifidobacterium (especially the infantis strain).
- Feed your intestinal bacteria with what they need to eat—prebiotic soluble fiber, found in fruits, vegetables, and grains—especially onions, garlic, dandelion greens, asparagus, Jerusalem artichoke, oats, barley, bananas, and apples. Research suggests that prebiotic fiber (often called FOS, or fructooligosaccharides) increases intestinal production of butyrate, which crosses the blood-brain barrier and helps us build more neural connections—in other words, helps us learn and remember! FOS can also be taken as a supplement, in the form of acacia or baobab fiber.
Do I need multivitamins?
Strange as it may seem, you can have stellar nutrient intake and absorption and still need additional vitamins to function optimally. This is because each of us is genetically unique and processes and utilizes nutrients differently. For example, it is not uncommon for my patients to have genetic deficiencies in their abilities to use the B vitamin folic acid (which shows up as abnormalities in their MTHFR genes) and to need not only much more than the average person but also particular forms of B vitamins to function optimally (such as the methylated forms: methylcobalamin and methyl folic acid).
Does everyone need to take vitamins? Absolutely not. Eating well is your best vitamin-boosting activity. Vitamins in food are better absorbed than they are in supplements (and likely, food-based supplements are better absorbed for that reason). But some of us are cellularly deficient in certain nutrients for a number of reasons: our nutrient-depleted food supply, our genes, our medications, or our personal risk factors.
Consider taking a multivitamin if you have any of the following, but always talk to your doctor before making any changes to the medications and/or supplements you take:
- A restricted diet that eliminates food groups (e.g. vegan, or paleo)
- A poor diet with few fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
- Numbness or tingling of the hands or feet
- More than two alcoholic beverages daily
- Diabetes, heart disease or kidney disease
- Any of the following regular medications:
- SSRI antidepressants
- Antacid medication (e.g., omeprazole, ranitidine, etc.)
- Birth control pills
- Diuretic blood pressure medications
- Age over 55
And if you don’t know your genetics with regards to the B vitamins, choose a multivitamin that contains methyl folic acid rather than folate, and methyl B12 (methylcobalamin) rather than cyanocobalamin. If you are a menstruating female, take a multivitamin that contains iron. If you are not a menstruating female, do not take iron in your multivitamin, as too much iron increases cardiac risk.
It is usually best to take vitamin D in the form of D3—which is more easily used by the body than D2—and for my patients who are deficient, I typically recommend 1,000 IU daily. Vitamin D deficiency is present in upward of 40 percent of the population and low levels double the risks of autoimmune disease and cancer! And some of my patients need more than 1,000 IU daily. It is worth having your vitamin D levels tested by your doctor and supplementing until you are in the normal range.
Supplements for the brain.
Eating and digesting well are the first and most important ways to improve brain function, but there are a few supplements that have proved to be so effective in research that they’re worth mentioning.
Turmeric is a potent and important spice that gives the bright-orange color to curry dishes. It contains at least two dozen anti-inflammatory compounds—the most widely recognized being curcumin—and has many studies supporting its use in preventing many types of cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as boosting memory and attention. It can even be used to decrease depression. Turmeric spice can be eaten with food or consumed in supplement form. More absorbable forms of the supplement contain BCM-95 (with curcumin essential oil) or theracurmin.
Omega-3 fatty acids:
Omega-3 fatty acids are powerful anti-inflammatories that improve mood, reduce pain, reduce triglycerides, and make your hair and nails healthy. They also improve cognitive function after trauma to the brain, and in someone who is deficient in omega-3s, adding them improves memory and reaction time. You can improve your omega-3 intake by eating cold water fish such as wild Pacific salmon or sardines two to three times weekly. Vegetarian sources for the omega-3 EPA are flax, chia, and hemp seeds, while the omega-3 DHA needs to be sourced from algae for vegetarians. A brain-boosting, anti-inflammatory dose of omega-3s is at least 1,500 milligrams of EPA and DHA.
S-adenosyl methionine (SAM-e) is an intracellular energy molecule that can be effective for depression and cognition, and, interestingly, osteoarthritis. It can work well for all three. SAM-e also provides a bit of an energy boost and should be taken in the morning for this reason. SAM-e is stimulating and can increase anxiety if you are anxious, so start low (50 to 100 mg) and increase slowly.
Preventing illness to optimize mind-body health.
As an integrative doctor for over two decades, and more importantly as a mother of three, I have optimized my approach to preventing and treating common respiratory illnesses over the years! Because as any of us knows, when you’re sick, neither your mind nor your body is at their best. For someone at risk of contracting colds, there are safe preventive strategies that work. This is important for someone with poor immunity and repetitive infections, or ongoing allergies that make colds more severe, or someone with excessive exposure (e.g., a preschool teacher or mother of young children). For these folks, I recommend ongoing prevention during the fall and winter seasons or whenever they are at risk. As always, ask your doctor before changing your current regimen or if you suspect illness.
Preventing colds, flu, and sinusitis:
- Get at least eight hours' sleep per night (more if you’re already ill!). This is the most important way to maximize immune function and cognitive ability.
- Wash your hands regularly!
- Healthy diet (as we discussed above) with lots of fruits and vegetables.
- Regular use (at least daily) of a neti pot, or more modern version of this, such as Sinus Rinse. Saltwater rinse of the nasal passages alleviates allergy symptoms, rinses out mucus, and shrinks nasal tissue, preventing sinus infections.
- Vitamin C 1,000 mg once or twice daily.
- Eating mushrooms and/or taking a mixed mushroom immune tincture or capsule.
- Astragalus, a Chinese herb available by tincture or capsule daily.
Once illness has set in, all of these preventive measures remain important, particularly the use of a neti pot, which can prevent the development of a bacterial sinus infection from a viral cold by keeping the nasal passages clear and allowing the sinuses to drain. When ill, it’s important to use the neti pot at least twice daily. In addition, you may want to add any of the following:
Treating respiratory infections:
Recipe for Homemade Elderberry Syrup (delicious and much cheaper than at the store!)
- 2 cups dried elderberries
- 4 cups water
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 inch peeled fresh ginger root sliced (or 1 teaspoon dried ginger)
- ⅔ cup raw honey
Add all ingredients to a medium-size pot and simmer for 30 minutes. Strain liquid from solids and stir in raw honey until well-mixed. Keep in a glass bottle or jar.
- Elderberry has excellent evidence of shortening the length of colds and flu. It also happens to be delicious and is available in capsules and syrups. It is pricey, so you may enjoy making your own at home with raw honey—a natural cough suppressant and immune booster.
- Fresh ginger root (featured above!) has antiviral effects and can be sliced and brewed with hot water and added honey for an immune tea.
- Echinacea is a wonderful immune stimulant that shortens the duration of a cold. It can be taken as a supplement or as a tea since hot liquids also decrease the symptoms of a viral cold.
Here are some of my favorite teas products for cold and flu season (which could be combined with fresh ginger and honey…):
Too tired to make tea? Here are my favorite supplements to be taken three times daily at the onset of illness that contain much of what is recommended above:
- Garlic has antiviral and antibacterial properties and, chopped fresh and consumed with honey, is a powerful cold buster.
- Viracon, Vital Nutrients (a balanced immune supplement).
- Wellness Formula, Source Naturals (The "everything but the kitchen sink" supplement, not good for long-term use but ideal for preventing more significant illnesses, such as a sinus infection or pneumonia).
Exercise: tonic for the mind and body.
Because the mind is not just "in your head" but distributed throughout your body, from your abdominal brain to the intricate neural network of your heart, moving your body in therapeutic ways is essential to your mood and cognitive performance. The research on this subject is compelling, showing that moderate exercise is as effective a treatment for major depression as antidepressants in the short term and better than antidepressants long-term.
Exercise is essential for mental focus, productivity, improved memory and prevention of dementia as well as decreasing overall mortality. But not everyone needs the same type of exercise or the same exercise over time. It’s essential that you listen to your body intelligence to guide you. For example, if you’re recovering from a cold, it’s not the time for a high-intensity interval training workout. It could be a great time for a walk. And yoga, which combines strength, flexibility, and meditation, is almost always good for what ails you. Exercising outside is particularly good for the relaxing and antidepressant effects, so consider finding something you can do outdoors, weather permitting.
I sincerely hope that these suggestions help you experience the mind and body health and vitality that you deserve! When we care for our bodies, we expand the possibilities of our minds and hearts and the great gifts we can give to those we love and to the world.