Better & Bolder, the Blog

Turning 51, part 2 Healing is possible


Hugh Ailin

V.

Monday, April 28th. 

I woke up really cold again. I had been awake much of the night, getting up to pee and then unable to fall back to sleep. I had two blankets on my bed but wasn’t warm enough until I added a third. 

I took my temperature because my forehead felt warm and I thought maybe I had some kind of fever. My temperature was low, though, and that’s when I realized: I’ve slowed down my metabolism. 

And here was my thought: this is fascinating!

I really did feel good running 18 miles a week, teaching Nia four times a week, practicing a new Nia routine, walking Lola, but I did this all while eating a different diet that’s somewhat lower than usual in calories and while not sleeping well. It’s not surprising that my achilles started hurting again, my energy tanked, and my metabolism slowed. 

Still, it was fascinating to see it happen, to watch my body adapt. If I was gonna move that much and eat and sleep that little, my body was gonna make me cold and tired to get me to sleep more, eat more, and move less. Way to go, Adaptable Biological System, well played. 

I want you to consider this. If your weight is not what you want it to be, consider that your weight is an adaptation to your life. Change your life and then your metabolism and weight will adapt. 

We focus so much on this simple idea of eating less and moving more. It’s a good start, and if we’re otherwise happy and healthy, and we eat just a bit less and move just a bit more, the formula works well. If the formula doesn’t work for you, then something bigger in your life is asking for attention. 

You know what I did? I went out for a run. I kept it short, just 2 1/2 miles, and I dressed really warmly. It felt great. Easy, healing, energizing. I taught a low key Nia class that afternoon. This was healing movement, enough to sweat and enough to pray and meditate, enough to connect with nature and with music and with others, and not so much to drain me.

I also did this one other little thing. I apologized. 

My son and I were driving home from an appointment, and I had Pandora radio on the comedy station. Louis CK was delivering a really biting piece about his tremendous love for his daughter and also how he totally hates her and wishes she’d never been born because she’s so much work. Ailin asked if it ever was that way for me. I said, there was this one time. 

He was maybe six or eight months old. My daughter was two. When my daughter had been his age, before Ailin was born, I’d been working part-time and she and I had a lovely rhythm. I could care for her and for myself. Then I started grad school. Once I got pregnant with Ailin, I had to take a break in that program, but I resumed it after he was born. Next, a full-time position opened up in my department and I had to take it. Here I am, parenting two tiny humans, working full-time, and working on a Master’s degree. I could no longer find the rhythm or flow in my life, and I couldn’t nurture myself well. My hormones were whack, which I thought was due to nursing.  I look back and see I must have had stress hormones shooting through the roof. So this one time, I don’t remember what made me crack, but I turned to Ailin and I yelled, “You ruined my life!” 

I didn’t mean it. Well, okay, I meant it, but it wasn’t true. I couldn’t yell at my job, “You ruined my life!” or at the grad program either. I couldn’t yell it at myself, “What the hell are you doing? Stop some of this, right now!” 

I knew he was too young to understand what I meant. There was more anguish than anger in my exclamation. He was a happy, smiley baby, a very easy and amiable kid for the most part. Somehow in my memory, I’m yelling and he’s sitting there, smiling. I’ve carried with me a guilt for having said such a horrible thing and one that’s so horribly untrue. The best choice I ever made was to make these babies with my husband and to live this life we have together. Ailin didn’t ruin my life; he made it a life worth living. 

In the car on Monday, I confessed. I told Ailin what I’d said and how I hadn’t meant it and I was sorry. I was sorry, in fact, for all the times I’d lost my temper and yelled. I was sorry that I was so strung out and stressed and that I didn’t know how to nurture myself with good food, rest, and acupuncture. I’d made this same apology to my daughter a few weeks before, and she’d said, well, I’d done the best I could and she’d had a happy childhood. Ailin said much the same, that he wasn’t traumatized by my yelling and that kids could be difficult to handle. I said, no, it’s possible to deal with kids without yelling. It just hadn’t been possible for me then. 

I’m just saying: at almost 51, I can forgive myself and I can apologize. Healing is possible.


VI.

Tuesday I did four things that were very healing. 

One, I had another acupuncture treatment. That stuff is the bomb. My tinnitus eased for a bit and I wasn’t cold for the rest of the day. I felt incredibly nurtured and fortified by the treatment. My optimism returned. I don't know that I could do this healing without acupuncture. It's been that fundamental to my health and well-being.

Two, I held some babies, the Agnew’s newborns. While I held those babies and talked with Pete and Diane, I didn’t think about any of my symptoms. I was present. What a relief. Oh, and baby holding I am sure makes the brain release generous amounts of feel good hormones. 

Three, Nia class rocked with good energy. My job was to guide the class to greater health and once again, I was present. I wasn’t focused on whether my ears were ringing or how I was reacting to anything. I was focused on making that one hour of the day work really well for a group of other people. 

Four, I stoked my metabolism by eating more often. I ate some almonds and just hoped it wasn’t going to set off a histamine reaction (no better or worse than any other meal, so that was a score). I ate a bit more rice and sweet potatoes, filling and healthful complex carbohydrates, foods that are warming and provide fuel for movement. I trusted my food.

I did not wake up on Wednesday all better. I’m cold. My ears are ringing. I notice I’m holding my jaw too tightly.  I woke, having slept much better, still tired but not as drained, especially not spiritually.  I woke ready -- no, compelled -- to write, and in writing I am astonished to notice the speed of healing and the great many things I’ve done in less than a week to transform from a place of discomfort and distress to a place of optimism and greater freedom. What seemed both slow and impossible now appears to be perfectly paced and a tremendous gift.

Turning 51, part One of Healing is Possible


I. 

In one week, I turn 51. I’m really happy about that. I was not happy about turning 50. I made a big deal out of it, built up to it, threw a big party. I’d hoped it would be great. The lead up was great, fantastic even. That’s when I was 49. Everything after 50, not so much. Until now. 

Today is April 26 and it’s 7:39 am on Saturday. I’ve eaten breakfast (a big bowl of onions, daikon radish, baby broccoli, brown rice, hemp seeds) after downing several glasses of water. In other words, a normal start to my day. 

I teach a Nia class in 90 minutes, and I can choose several things to do right now. I can keep writing this blog. I can keep reading the novel I started last night. I can practice some Nia before class.

50 year old me probably would keep writing. But acting like the 51 year old that I almost am, I’d like to get moving. I need a head start before class plus it will feel nice to be prepared for class. 

Yeah, that’s how I want 51 to be.  A little less rushed, a little more lubed and ready to go.


II.

I’m tired, I’m cold and despite having just eaten breakfast, I’m hungry.  Let me explain.

Today is Sunday, April 27, and it’s 8:36 am. I’ve been awake since 5am. I wake up at night often and it’s difficult to fall back asleep. I’m not worried, or maybe I am. I simply can’t settle. I know to heal I must rest. 

I’ve been going to Cindy Wu for acupuncture for years, and she’s done an amazing job of supporting me through allergies and perimenopause. I had called her on Friday, feeling somewhat desperate for an appointment and she fits me in, as she often does. She says this is kidney yin deficiency, gives me a treatment, gives me Chinese herbs, and says the ringing in my ears and dry mouth and all the other symptoms will get better. I will get better. 

It’s as good a story as any: I will heal. 

This is a lovely article about kidney yin deficiency. It explains that according to Chinese medicine, we’re born with a certain amount of Jing (think of life force or Qi energy; how much Jing we have at birth is inherited from our parents). We replenish Jing through nutrition. But age and excess drain our Jing, and age may inhibit the powers of our digestion, too. 

Oh, and menopause -- too much yang, not enough yin. Those of us who have been pushing hard for years find we still push, flashing out our Yang energy like a shield, but underneath it all, we’re soft, tired, depleted. The Yang energy we project is a mask, not a true strength. 

The symptoms for kidney yin deficiency -- dry mouth, tingling, ears ringing -- feel similar to the ones I’ve ascribed to eating issues, that is, difficulties digesting and metabolizing. 

That’s because it’s right after I eat that the symptoms begin or worsen. Sometimes there’s a tingling in my arms or even my lips tingle. My throat may be tight and my jaw is even tighter. My ears feel full, stuffed, though the worst is the ringing, sometimes painfully sharp and shrill and other times a dull high roar. Sometimes I can’t describe the sensations except to say I feel strange, or wrong. 

I have been searching the internet to find out why this is happening. Why did my intuition say not to eat the guacamole? Is there something(s) I’m eating that set off these reactions? The internet points me to histamine intolerance and I see a list of foods that set off a reaction. Avocado is there along with tomatoes -- that’s the guacamole. 

The list includes many foods that I love and so many foods that I am not sure how to eat enough calories each day. Sometimes a little of this or a little of that is fine, but supposedly it’s the sum total, as it usually is with allergies and intolerances. It all builds up. Some foods contain more or less histamine depending on how ripe they are, so the less ripe banana may be tolerated well by someone at some points. There isn’t a simple list of Eat This and Avoid That. 

One site I appreciate very much, the Low Histamine Chef. She reminds us that we need histamine to digest our food. That’s why sometimes we react to everything we eat, not just the foods that are high in histamine. She urges us to eat foods that support our overall nutritional needs, even if it’s supposedly high in histamine. I appreciate her words but I’ve become afraid anyway. I’m afraid because I can’t tell anymore, not by keeping a food log and tracking symptoms and not by intuition, which foods nurture and which foods deplete. 

I do not see how I can pare my diet down any further. I eat no beans or legumes, the source of my allergic reaction three months ago. I try not to eat nuts because the histamine intolerance internet sites warn against them, but I’m hungry. Does the chicken or do the eggs I eat worsen the symptoms? I’m hungry. The pumpkin seeds seemed to make my symptoms worse and sesame seeds may as well. Can I eat sunflower seeds? I eat hemp seeds for protein along with whatever I get from quinoa, brown rice, and vegetables. I eat more eggs and chicken than I really want because, well, I’m hungry and also because I want to be sure that I’m getting all the nutrition I need.

I cycle through my responses. Hey, I’m hungry so I’m eating this food anyway because it’s a truly healthful food. Ack, I hate these symptoms so I’m not going to eat anything that might be causing a problem. Oh, I will never get well. Oh, stop whining, it’s not that hard; as long as I can eat some grains, some seeds, and vegetables, really, I’m getting good nutrition and I’ll be fine. 

Mostly I wonder if the internet is right. Mostly I hate that I am becoming Crazy Food Lady, the one with long lists of what she can’t eat and a crazy reason she can’t eat it.

Dr. Wu says these symptoms are due to the kidney yin deficiency. I search the internet again. Which foods should I eat to help with kidney yin deficiency and which should I avoid? The list looks a bit like my histamine intolerance list and a lot like my intuition. Yes to warm foods, yes to soup, yes to greens, no to spicy or stimulating foods. 

I decide that Dr. Wu will help me heal and I’ll stop having these intense reactions, eventually. It’s as good a story as any.

III.

I’m quiet. 

It’s still April 27 and now it’s 11:18 am. I surrendered and went back to lie down in bed. It felt right. 

Today is run day and I don’t know if I’ll run. Friday was run day, and I didn’t run then. I wanted to run and I could tell my body didn’t really want it. 

For the past three weeks, I’ve been adding mileage. I am so in love with the sensations and experience of running outside. I love extending my runs so I’m out there long enough to get further into the bosque, farther into the North Valley. I’m just under 20 miles a week, 3 runs a week, with my long run at 7 or 8 miles, which is really luscious. 

Not this week, though, and that can be a good response to adding miles, taking a week to back off. 

I have been healing my sore achilles, though I have a ways to go. 

Healing way one: letting the experts work on me, using ART to release some of the adhesions. I saw a lot of relief and progress from working with Dr. Maggio for several weeks.

Healing way two: eccentric calf raises several times a day. I’m not as consistent as I should be, but this method has made a huge difference.

Healing way three: changing my diet to exclude foods that caused inflammation. This has been incredible. Within two days of not eating the foods to which I’d had an allergic reaction, my achilles improved markedly. I’d had no idea how much eating those foods had kept my entire system on alert, inflamed, taxed, and achy. My spirit felt that way, too, actually. When I changed my nutrition, my essential life energy shifted. 

Healing way four: backing off my running miles, all the way down to nil, building up slowly, continuing to work on form and experimenting with finding a shoe that feels good (currently Inov-8 Bare-X 180). 

There’s more healing to do, much in the form of strengthening. Stronger core and hip abductors will mean better form, which means a lighter step. 

I’m still healing my diet, healing my energy, improving my sleep, learning to rest. I’m still healing my spirit, too, getting stronger by being more optimistic, praying more, being kinder in my thoughts to others, being more forgiving toward myself. You might not think this has anything to do with running but it has to do with everything. 


IV. 

Sunday was transformative. I stopped writing after completing the post above. I treated myself as if I were sick -- lots of rest, no expectations -- except I didn’t have to get a cold or the flu or anything to deserve it. It was a pre-emptive strike. I didn’t run. I didn’t even go for a walk since it was nasty cold and really windy. Twice I lay down to nap, though I don’t think I slept. I made my first ever green soup (squash and dandelion greens). 

I also read a really great book. The Last Best Cure by Donna Jackson Nakazawa chronicles “my quest to awaken the healing parts of my brain and get back my body, my joy, and my life.”  Nakazawa nailed the exact right mix of bringing in scientific research to explain what she’s doing and letting us in on her personal life.

After not one but two debilitating bouts of Guillian-Barre syndrome, and having suffered for decades with autoimmune disorders, Nakazawa’s energy and physical abilities were greatly diminished. She managed to continue to keep a household running, raise two kids, and work as a journalist, but she was awfully tired and all out of joy. She wanted more. 

Her new doc specialized in psychoneuroimmunology. They decided together to keep all of Nakazawa’s medicines the same but add in elements that might help her heal. She wanted to use only elements that were accessible and could be made available to everyone. That is, she was experimenting with her own life and hoped others could benefit as well, which I thought was a really lovely way to go after her own healing and to start the cycle of healing -- by focusing not just on herself. 

She chose meditation, yoga, and acupuncture.

Her doc helped her understand that her childhood could have affected her immune system functioning. Greatly simplified, the book describes how some people are like dandelions; they can adapt to any condition. There’s more plasticity in their brains. 

A smaller portion of the population are like orchids, and they thrive only under very specific conditions. They respond more strongly to stress, and on the upside, they respond more strongly to nurturing as well. There is a gene marker to distinguish these two (I’ve also read this gene, 5-HTTLPR, described as the happy gene, indicating which of us are born leaning toward happiness and which of us are not). For some people, then, an adverse childhood event (ACE), such as dealing with poverty, parental divorce, and even abuse, may have a stronger effect on a person’s immune system. 

Childhood trauma is “a strong predictor of adult illnesses,” and her doctor explains, “Your brain became wired early on to be stress reactive. Your immune system has paid the price. The early trauma you experienced sparked neural pathways and a pattern of hormone and inflammatory chemical cascades that have impacted you on a cellular level for decades.”

I want to add two things here. First, thinking in terms of Chinese medicine, imagine how much jing is expended to deal with those childhood traumas. First, it’s traumatic, and that’s hard on anybody. 

But, compounding that, kids don’t have a ton of resources. Depending on their age, they may not even have the resource of logic; for instance, a four year old relies on magical thinking. Imagine being stuck in a four year old’s head. This is what happens with trauma to our thoughts and emotions and nervous system and immune functioning. It gets stuck at the trauma. It worsens if we don’t talk about it and shut down. 

The second thing I want to add is: healing is possible. Exercise, for instance, creates new neurons, and after about six weeks of activity, these new neurons have been shown to be stress-resistant. Here’s the double plus good about exercise. It also stimulates the creation of BDNF, which helps us learn. That means we can replace the negative messages and emotions we created with the trauma by creating new memories on top. In other words, we re-frame the memory so it’s not stuck in a four year old’s point of view. Now I see what happened to me from the perspective of a 51 year old. 

When I’m running, I pray. “May all beings be well, may all beings receive love and compassion.” I also re-frame. I tell my hips that they’re safe now, really, and they don’t have to hold on so tightly any more. 

The psoas has been called the fight-or-flight muscle, and even as it has to work for me to run, I let it know there’s no danger here, there’s no tension to hold as it works. 

I explain to my spirit that I’m strong now and capable, and I wasn’t when I was just four years old. 

I soothe my emotions, acknowledging that I will never ever forget how bad that trauma was, how devastating, but we don’t have to keep feeling those emotions in order to honor and remember. 

I’m running, and I’ve got this cognitive stream going, talking myself through my past and into a new future. You thought I was just going for a run because it’s a fun way to move. It is. It’s also an invitation -- maybe not every run but as often as I need -- to do the deep work that I won’t do sitting in my room. 

Exercise, and in particular running, sets off my joy meter, and joy has a positive effect on not just my mood but also my hormones. Just as worry or pain “can activate the brain to send forth a brew of inflammatory chemical messengers, molecules, and hormones,” joy and a sense of well-being encourage an anti-inflammatory response. 

Running gets me being in nature and exercise, and while it’s not meditation, it certainly feels meditative at times. Being in nature is highly restorative to our brains. 

Our brains are malleable, Nakazawa learns, and she realizes, “The more I learn, the less willing I am to accept that my life now should feel like my life when I was twelve. The more determined I am to change.” Amen, sister. It’s that determination that I think is the beginning of her healing. She also needs the science. She writes, “If we are not our thoughts, then we can change our thoughts,” which sounds pretty new-agey, but she continues, “And if we can changes our thoughts, then perhaps we can change our cells.” 

I think this is practical, not just woowoo. When we change our thoughts, we decide to change our attitudes and behaviors, and we can change to more positive thoughts and behaviors. 

Nakazawa wonders if meditation works not just to soothe the parasympathetic nervous system (so there are fewer fight-or-flight responses -- you know, like how we flip out when we’re stuck in traffic for 30 seconds -- oh, or maybe that was me, not you). Meditation could stimulate “the production of growth hormones linked to the preservation and maintenance of each cell.” Basically, we learn to perceive stressful situations as what they are and then we choose our response. Traffic is a drag, for sure, yet I can choose to be calm or to get agitated. 

Nakazawa gives another example of this. She sees that the clerk at the dry cleaner looks as if he’s in a bad mood. She sends him some loving-kindness, just in her thoughts, and then notices he’s smiling. Did her loving-kindness thoughts work? Did he receive them? Or is she looking for evidence of his happiness and that’s where her attention goes? Does it matter? That’s a fun experiment. Go ahead. Send messages of loving-kindness (any version of “may you be safe, may you be well, may you be happy”). See how your day transforms.

Mindfulness, often a byproduct of meditation, helps in other ways. One UCLA study found that when we label an emotion (“I’m feeling sad now”), this labeling required the prefrontal cortex to be active and simultaneously turned “down the amygdala alarm center response in the brain.” 

That’s genius. Imagine yourself, tired at the end of the day, feeling ill at ease, and craving, ummm, a pizza. Yeah, that’s it, a pizza, cheesy greasy goodness floating on top of soft, chewy bread. But pizza isn’t really a part of your healthful diet this week, so you stop for a moment of mindfulness. You realize, “I’m tired. I feel sad.” The craving for pizza is interrupted. 

“The more we utilize the center of our brain that names feelings,” Nakazawa writes, “the less stressed we feel by them.” I adore the simplicity of this technique. It’s not broad, as in “be mindful of your feelings.” Instead, it gives me something specific to do, name my emotion. I might still choose the pizza, for sure, but the drive, the intensity, the screaming amygdala, gets to shift down for a moment so I can make a choice, and that choice could lead me to greater or less inflammation. 

Want another easy way to feel better? Sigh. A sigh “helps to kick in the parasympathetic nervous system and calms us down.” Make a sound to release some feelings. A little groan will do. 

Nakazawa doesn’t cite her sources here but explains that “mood-related ‘sound signatures’ help us to release the stress and tension we unwittingly hold tight in different places in our bodies. Again, this is practical and quick and easy. I never liked the admonition to “just relax” and “breathe” when I’m stressed out. However, if I make a sound, I have to breathe. I release the sound and there will be a big, corresponding, enriching, soothing inhale that follows it. 

Nakazawa puts together what she calls her emergency toolbox, techniques such as the above that we can use, immediately and effectively, to switch from a high-stress response to a lower stress response. 

She also employs optimism, holding on to the belief that things can get better. This is important in choosing to do the things that might make us feel better. It helps her to see progress, too. Martin Seligman conducted a long-term study that showed that optimism was the most important factor in which cardiac patients would suffer another heart attack and die and which would be alive and kicking eight years later. 

Add to the emergency toolbox some standard practices. For me, that’s Nia and running. This writing that I do. Gratefulness. Being in nature. Remembering to get more hugs. 

Nakazawa explains another of Seligman’s techniques for happiness and good health. Write down or just think about three good things that happened during the day. It will feel great to recollect them and it’s a nice way to unwind before bed. But here’s the kicker. Then ask why each good thing occurred. Did it occur because you were willing to listen? Because you paid attention? Because someone else was stupendously kind -- and you were willing to accept and receive? Note what you did to make good things happen for you in your life. 

Nakazawa even writes her three things down each night on 3X5 cards and then puts them under her pillow to sleep on them. She sets the cards aside and when she re-reads them later, she savors them. She literally feels her heartbeat slow down as she remembers. The healing goes deep. She’s creating a new nervous system and she’s reinforcing it every day and night. 

As Nakazawa begins to heal, her relationship with her kids gets better. She yells a lot less, they tell her. When her teenage son does the type of truly stupid, impulsive and potentially dangerous thing that teenage boys do, Nakazawa starts with a shout -- and then shifts to a hug. Hugs are bonding, hugs are re-assuring, and hugs release oxytocin that makes us feel good. Hugs heal. She tells her son a line she stole from Anne Lamott, a line that makes me cry just thinking about it. She says, “You are preapproved. Just as you are.” Think of everyone you know whom you really love. Preapproved. Now shine that on yourself. Preapproved. 

The overall message of the book is that healing happens, and, indeed, Nakazawa’s health, well-being, and joy level have increased tremendously by the end of her year experiment. 

She’d decided it didn’t matter if she were a dandelion or an orchid. “Growing scientific consensus tells us that efforts to meditate and train the brain might help to rewrite bad epigenetics and even induce new, better epigenetics. Undo the damage of gene methylation, or what some scientists now term our ‘DNA memories.’” 

We all can engage in practices “that downshift the fight-or-flight response and grow new, healthier neural and chemical pathways, simply by adjusting your psychological state of mind.” That’s psychoneuroimmunology. Change your mind, change your body. Change your practices. Change your life. You’re not stuck with your past as if you’re in the past. 

Amen. Blessed Be. Whatever.


A woman asked me a question this morning at Nia, and I was so glad she did. Her question reminded me of all the things I don’t know. 

She asked how to tune into her body sensations when she’s dancing. 

Since one of the primary purposes of Nia is to do just this, it’s an excellent question. 

I’ve been dancing and teaching Nia from four to six times a week for 13 years. Throw in extra hours for trainings plus learning or practicing routines, and that’s a lot of hours, every week, every year, with the opportunity to remember to be in my body, not stuck in my head. I’ve gotten pretty good at sensing my body while also doing a bunch of other things, such as listening to the music, observing the dancers in the room, and making some quick choices about choreography and cues. It’s a fun challenge. 

I take that sensory awareness with me into the rest of my life. Even with all that practice, every week for over a decade, I surprise myself by noticing, for instance, that I’m sitting in a way that makes me uncomfortable and I choose to keep sitting that way. Or I notice I’m slouching, collapsing my chest into my waist, and I think, geez, all this practice with Nia and I still can tune out and away from my body. 

I’m fascinated by what I don’t know and what assumptions I make. I simply forget how many hours I’m practicing Nia and how many fewer hours my students get. I forget to be in their bodies, with their experiences.

I read a blog post recently (Facing Failing Health as a Vegan) by Sayward Rebhal, who described her multiple health problems -- fatigue, mood swings, rashes.  She’d even stopped menstruating. She was vegan, and family and friends tried to persuade her to eat meat. She knew that wasn’t the answer.  

She finally found a practitioner who helped her see that the problem with her diet wasn’t that she was vegan but that she also chose to eat very low fat. She ate fruits, vegetables, and carbohydrates, which made her fuzzy, lethargic, and angry. 

From the outside, I’m, like, well, yeah, of course, she felt terrible eating muffins and kale. It seems really obvious to me, over here, not living her life, and I’m really surprised she didn’t know she’d need adequate fats. I thought every body knew that we need fat in our diet. See? That’s one of my assumptions. 

The moment Rebhal added a small amount of nuts and seeds to her diet, her health improved. I have a lot of sympathy for Rebhal. I wish I’d been her mom and could have taken her aside, waaaaaay earlier in her journey, and given her information and support that would have helped her choose to eat a moderate fat and moderate protein vegan diet. 

I really wish I could tell everyone how to eat. Really. Don’t eat this food, I’d say, or be sure to eat lots of that. I recently started down that road with a friend, suggesting what she should and shouldn’t eat, and I was mortified at my behavior. We all have histories with food, complex and compelling, and there are 1001 reasons we eat the way that we do. If someone asks me for advice, sure, then I can start talking. Here’s what I’d like to say: “Who knows? Our bodies change all the time. Listen to your body, your Now body.”

Every time you fix a meal, ask your body what it would really truly like. If your emotions or spirit want something else, decide if your body’s needs come first or not. Sometimes, our emotional needs are best met with food. Heck, yeah, emotional eating is nurturing (see Marc David’s post here). 

I’m happy to provide as well 1001 articles that explain the ways certain foods nurture us. I can sum it up, though. Get plenty of good fats, good carbohydrates, and good proteins. What’s good for you is different at every You that you are (nursing mom you, running a marathon you, building a house you, studying for a PhD you, menopause you). Be willing to let go of whatever used to work for you and pay attention to what really works for you today. 

When in doubt, Michael Pollan says it very well: eat food, not too much, mostly plants. Eating Paleo? Okay, make sure it’s mostly plants. Eating Special Diet of the Month? Whatevs, make sure it’s mostly plants. If it works for you, whatever special diet it may be, focus on eating mostly plants. That’s the one common denominator for every diet ever that works long-term for health and happiness. 

I could rail against wheat or sugar or dairy or corn syrup and you know what? Some people eat those and feel just fine. So, go ahead if you like it and it feels good. Just make sure that most of what you eat is plants, and you’re good to go. Really. Don’t sweat the details if you’re feeling good. It’s important that you are able to sense your body so that you know you feel good. This post started there: learning to sense our bodies, whether dancing or Dancing through Life, is a practice. It’s a journey. Do it a lot. 

If you’re not feeling good, you may have some work to do to figure out what works best in your diet for you right now. It’s detective work. Like Rebhal, sometimes we have to get the right support, ask the right questions, and be willing to let go of stories and assumptions. I eat a pretty healthful diet most of the time, so it was disturbing to find out that my body stopped functioning well on legumes and beans. I mean, that’s just wrong. It took a lot of feedback before I could figure out what was bothering me. You know what? I’m still figuring it all out, my Now body, and every time I think that okay, I’ve got this, my Now changes, again, and I’m re-figuring how to balance my nutritional and emotional needs. 


I want to mention one other instance in which I was really surprised at what I knew and someone else didn’t know. I teach basic writing at CNM and each term I assign students to write an essay with the thesis “Exercise improves the quality of our lives.” (One student this term caught on to my agenda and said that it was a health class masquerading as a writing class. Busted.)  We read some fun articles, such as Mark Stibich’s “Exercise Makes Sex Better” and we read some difficult ones, such as Gretchen Reynolds’  “Why Exercise Makes You Less Anxious,” in which she explains studies that show exercise creates new brain cells, and those neurons are more resistant to stress. We know that when we exercise we often feel less stressed afterwards, and now these studies show that we are creating a brain that is more able to resist stress in the future. That, to me, is a big Wow. It says we exercise to make our bodies more fit, and that exercise is making our brains more fit, too. 

In fact, not only do we make our brains more resistant to stress. When we exercise, we increase the level of BDNF in our brain. We’re not just building up our biceps with exercise; we’re building a bigger hippocampus. That BDNF is crucial for memory. So if we exercise, moderately, about twenty minutes before we need to perform (say, take a test or give a speech), we’ll perform better. BDNF is crucial for creating new memories, too, which is why recess is not the part of the school day that gives kids a break. It’s the part of the day that prepares their brains to learn better. It’s not taking away time from their learning; it’s the activity that enhances learning. It is a crucial, irreplaceable part of their day.

In the February 2014 issue of Runner’s World magazine, Christine Fennessey wrote a beautiful article called “Running Back from Hell.” It describes a running program that enhances cognitive treatment for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A pilot program seeks to find out the effectiveness of moderate cardio exercise, such as 30 minutes running on a treadmill, prior to a therapy session that focuses on cognitive reframing of difficult memories for combat veterans. That is, will the BDNF help these vets create new, safer memories to take the place of the traumatic ones? Will exercise help vets in the therapy sessions to remember the awful memories and stay present, without the adrenaline surges, disorientation, panic, terror and then guilt associated with the original memory?

What the article does very well is show how deeply some of these vets have come to rely on running as a way to ease both physical and psychic pain. Becoming part of a running team is one important part of their recovery. I’m sure they’re also experiencing the benefits of those new neurons, the ones that are stress-resistant. They’re also experiencing the endorphins that kick in somewhere around twenty minutes into moderately difficult cardio sessions, the high that buffers us from pain and invites us to indulge, again and again, in our favorite cardio and not those other drugs. (Another article we read for class, by the way, Kate Dailey’s “From Excess to Exercise” discusses how exercise helps addicts recover and maintain their sobriety.)

Here’s something that I thought everyone knew but they don’t. At least three students in their written responses to this article remarked that they hadn’t realized that combat was so difficult and that soldiers came home traumatized. That really hit me. This is something else that I’d taken for granted and assumed that everyone knew. This is something that’s really important for us to acknowledge so that vets can get the support and treatment they need. This kind of research is vital because instead of waiting in line to see a doc, vets can be self-medicating with exercise and can be involved in effective (and cost-effective), non-drug approaches to therapy. 


My hope for myself is that as I get older and wiser, I become more and more aware of my assumptions so that I can make them less often. I’d like to offer less advice and offer instead my ability to witness. I’d like to share what I don’t know as often as what I do know. 

As I make my own stumbling way through my food journey, I often imagine how it must look to someone on the outside. I imagine someone else reading about my choices and wanting to take me aside and say, “Look, it’s very simple and you’re making this way too hard. All you need is X.” 

I don’t need X, though. I need the process of learning what works for me and doesn’t. I need the process of discovering why I do the same things over and over. I need the journey, not the arrival; otherwise, I’d already be there, figured out, already. That’s what others need, too. As much as we say we want the answer, or we want relief, what we need is the process of learning it. That’s why I’m here to witness, to stand with others, because this process of learning can be difficult at times, even overwhelming. I’ll probably keep giving advice, too, because that’s how I roll. 


Here’s what I told the student today, the one who asked me about paying attention to sensation in her body. I asked her if when I cued, “Everybody, sense your hand,” if that brought her into sensory awareness. It did. I remarked that clearly she’s aware of when she goes off into her head, thinking or creating stories, so once she has that awareness, she could cue herself “sense my hand.” 

Her strength is cognitive awareness. Her strength is thinking. So she can use that strength for self-talk. To increase the amount of time she spends in sensory awareness, she uses self-talk to cue herself back into body awareness. She uses the same cue that I use in class because it’s an effective cue for her. 

This, ladies and gentlemen, is why I’m a teacher. I listen, I ask questions, I evaluate what works already and what isn’t working, and I prescribe. It is so fun. The part where I help someone learn or access new skills is the part that gets me high. Witnessing their work is an honor.

I bring that to my personal food journey: listen, ask questions, evaluate, prescribe, repeat. I bring as well a mixture of frustration, fear, desire, ego, and bull dog perseverance. I bring the long view: if it takes my whole life to learn to eat well and obsess less, then that’s how long it takes. Amen. Blessed be. Whatevs. 

Am I really that calm about it? No, there are tears involved. There is angst. There is also unrelenting curiosity. I’m just so curious about why this process of feeding myself is so fraught with obsession, compulsion, and drama. Eat food, not too much, mostly plants -- I mean, how hard is that? It’s as hard as everything, or anything. It’s the thing I go back to that teaches me about being human and reminds me to ease up on everybody, including myself.