These 6 Lessons Changed My Health Forever
Everywhere we turn—Facebook, YouTube, TV, our phones—we hear different, competing messages about health. Eat only plants. Go paleo. Run a lot. Don’t run at all. Yoga is life-changing. Yoga is boring. This is the magic bullet for weight loss. There’s no such thing as a magic bullet for weight loss!
Trust me, I’ve heard—and written about—it all. Over the course of my career as a health journalist, I’ve produced stories about all aspects of health and wellness. I’ve covered everything from green smoothie recipes to positive psychology, from HIIT workouts to healing crystals.
Despite all the research and interviews my job entailed, the conventional health wisdom wasn’t exactly working for me. I actually believe that because of all the mixed messages about health and wellness I was writing about and reporting on, my own health suffered. In short, I tried to do too much—I tried to do it all, really, without taking the time to figure out what worked for my body.
So around the same time I quit my full-time job as a writer for one of the world’s biggest health websites earlier this year, I embarked a personal health journey to address some health issues of my own. I even got certified as a health coach and personal trainer to continue my education. Along the way, I realized a lot of surprising things that my years of writing about health never taught me. I learned why a lot of the conventionally "healthy" things I was doing weren’t working—and what I needed to do instead.
All in all, 2017 completely changed the way I think about health. As we enter 2018, here are some lessons this past year has taught me about my health, well-being, and overall happiness. Some were minor, some were more major, but all were valuable in some way. And maybe they’ll provide some value to you, too:
1. Feeling tired all the time is NOT normal.
In 2016 and early 2017, I was tired pretty much constantly. It was hard for me to get out of bed, and I also had trouble sleeping. By 3 p.m. every day, I turned to sugar or coffee to perk up. I thought it was normal—an unfortunate yet expected side effect of a fast-paced NYC lifestyle. But when it started to affect certain parts of my life (from turning down social invites to calling in sick to work), I started doing research. Finally I came across a post in which health blogger Lee From America describes her "adrenal fatigue" in detail, and it matched my symptoms exactly.
In April of this year, I finally saw a functional medicine doctor who confirmed it. After doing extensive blood work, he found I also had hypothyroidism, high cortisol levels, low progesterone, and several nutrient deficiencies. After following his protocol (which I’ll describe in more detail in a later post) for a few months, I felt 1,000 times better. I had more energy, I lost weight, and overall I felt much more balanced.
2. Diets suck.
This year, I threw out—once and for all—the notion that strict, regimented diets are the way to go. It was sort of ironic, because my doctor did give me some super-strict guidelines to follow. But I quickly realized those didn’t work for me. Let’s be real: At some level, we all know what foods are healthy and which aren’t. It’s just a matter of sticking to it. So instead of worrying about whether foods were "good" or "bad," I started to pay more attention to how foods make me feel and used that as my guide. I also attended a mindful eating retreat in Vermont, which opened my eyes to what eating mindfully really means.
Now I try to ask myself one question before eating something: "How am I going to feel after eating this?" I mean physically and mentally—will I feel bloated/lethargic/tired? Will I feel guilty/gross/regretful? If it’s a yes, I skip it. Knowing that certain foods make me feel crappy doesn’t mean I avoid them entirely, however. If I want to eat ice cream or French fries, I eat ice cream or French fries—knowing full well my stomach isn’t going to feel great. (#YOLO, after all.)
What foods do make me feel good? Protein, healthy fats, fruits, and veggies. Less sugar, dairy, and gluten. Two glasses of wine on a night out instead of four. When you stop and think about it this way, healthy eating really isn't all that complicated.
3. Slogging away on the treadmill won't get you anywhere (literally).
When I gained a few pounds earlier this year, I thought the solution was MORE CARDIO! So I started dragging myself to Flywheel classes and forcing myself on frequent long runs. But as my doctor pointed out, insane amounts of cardio can often backfire.
OK, cardio won’t "make you fat." But when you combine elevated cortisol levels due to chronic stress (as I had) with the spikes from daily cardio sessions (especially long, steady-state cardio), you’re essentially creating a "fat trap." In other words, people with elevated cortisol levels are less likely to lose weight from cardio because high cortisol causes the body to hold on to fat. (It thinks you’re in fight-or-flight mode constantly, so it wants to reserve its extra energy banks in case you need to take off across the tundra.)
So, after learning a lot from my doctor and countless articles, I gave up cardio for a few months, and instead focused on:
- Reducing stress (through sleep, supplements, meditation, and fun activities)
- Eating lower glycemic, whole foods
- Doing more strength training and yoga for exercise
Going against conventional wisdom, once I stopped doing so much cardio, I started to feel so much better and actually lost weight.
4. Finding a workout you're obsessed with is a game-changer.
Speaking of strength training, I needed to find a workout I enjoyed that didn’t involve cardio—stat. I do like working out on my own, but I like classes more, and of my favorite things to do is try different exercise studios on ClassPass. But, since moving to a new city last fall, I hadn’t fallen truly head-over-heels in love with any of them. That changed when I went to a Lagree Method studio with megaformers here in Atlanta. Honestly, I used to hate this kind of workout, and if you do too, I understand why. It is freaking HARD (it does get easier, sort of), especially the ab work, but now I feel refreshed, accomplished, and stronger after every class, and it keeps me coming back for more.
5. Hormones are in charge of pretty much everything in our body.
And when they’re out of whack, you feel like crap, as I learned firsthand. Just a few examples:
- High cortisol levels (from extended periods of stress) disrupt many functions in your body, including sleep, sex drive, mental health/anxiety, and metabolism.
- Low progesterone contributes to weight gain, anxiety, fatigue, and irregular cycles.
- Low thyroid hormone leads to fatigue, weight gain, anxiety, constipation, dry skin/hair, hair loss, and so much more. (Note: Most conventional docs have a high threshold for what’s a normal amount of TSH, so they may not diagnose you with hypothyroidism. Which happened to me, which is why I saw a functional medicine doctor.)
Getting all of these hormones back in working order was life-changing, and I want to learn much more about this topic in 2018 to help others—and myself.
6. Taking time to rest, reset, and tune in to your body is a nonnegotiable.
In our noisy, crazy, fast-paced world, I don’t think anyone does this often enough. When I went on the retreat in Vermont I mentioned earlier, I was more relaxed than I’d been in probably years. For an entire week, I ate meals at set times, someone told me what my schedule would be every day, and I went to bed early and got up early and didn’t drink any alcohol. I honestly felt like a different person at the end of it, almost in a peaceful, happy daze—until my train ended up at Penn Station and I was thrown back into reality.
This point sort of plays into the whole self-care movement that’s happening now, but I think it’s so much more than face masks and bubble baths. I know we all don’t have the time or budget to go on a yoga retreat in Costa Rica, but there are some things we can all do in our everyday lives to ensure we’re truly paying attention to what our body wants to do—not what society tells us to do.
Delete social media apps from your phone for a weekend, or maybe even turn off your phone for a weekend. Stop drinking for a few days, or even a month. Don’t drag yourself to a spin class, and stay inside and just stretch/chill out for an hour. If you’re anything like me, you’ll never fail to be amazed at what messages you hear when you tune out the noise and look inside.