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Change for Health; Where to Start?

Happy Love Day! Though Valentine's Day can be fraught with Hallmark visions inspiring complicated feelings, I always welcome this day as a chance to feel grateful for all the love in my life. So I'm writing today about one thing I love more than almost anything: the power of change.

What does this have to do with health? I've been thinking a lot about this, for many years, but particularly at the turn of a new year. Especially this one; we are a week into the Year of the Fire Monkey, which you may have already noticed is a quick trickster, the harbinger of swift changes that you may need but might not have seen coming. I'll write about this in an upcoming post, and will be speaking about the Chinese New Year next month.

But for now, I'd like to touch on the importance of change to our health. On a broader philosophical level, health IS change; as the planet turns around the sun, day turns to night, and we are born, age and die, we can know that change is truly the only constant. So movement is a fundamental component to health and harmony; without it, we aren't alive, both literally and metaphorically.

How then do we think about this on a more mundane level? What changes are essential to health and longevity? Media will tell you that it's in the next smoothie, gym membership, and most importantly, how you force yourself to take and do these things because someone said they are healthy. We so want this to be true, because we are seeking simple solutions. Life is complex; wouldn't it be nice if health were not?

Perhaps it can be simple, and I suspect it doesn't lie in a smoothie. But we can boil it down to essential components. Recently I listened to a couple podcasts that inspired me to think about the basic changes we must commit to in order to have lasting health. As I consider the thousands of patient stories I've heard over the years, and my own powerful health journey, it seems there are two potent places to start: the food we eat, and the thoughts we think. Of course we must consider exercise, stress-reduction, relationships, etc., but let me explain why it comes down to choosing good food and thoughts first.

1. Changing the food we choose

Food can feel as if it's become so complex and confusing, with competing information coming out regularly, that we become overwhelmed and default to what is familiar. But really it just comes down to eating food that is truly food! In this podcast, brilliant farmer and author Joel Salatin explains very clearly, that good food choices are essential to our survival. The only way to save ourselves and the planet is to eat real food; the kind that grows in good soil, close to home. One powerful example he gives is a study of grocery-store (factory-farmed) eggs versus farm (pasture-raised) eggs; the former was shown to have 48 mcg of folic acid (important nutrient) per egg, whereas the latter had 1,038 mcg! So when we think it's too complicated and expensive to eat organic and local, we need to consider the money saved on vitamin pills and doctor visits. Eating real food is no longer a consideration, it's the foundation to health that we can't afford to ignore.

2. Changing the thoughts we choose

Even the concept that we choose our thoughts is new to many of us. Though thoughts arise, and can seem out of our control, with practice we can choose which ones get more air-time than others. This is the practice of meditation; just watching what comes and goes, nothing more. And it turns out this is not just an eastern spiritual practice (or western, if you consider prayer); it is the way to a healthy brain. Functional MRI's show the amygdala shrinks (less stress) and other grey matter grows (more smarts!) in a brain that engages in regular meditation (which can just mean being aware of your thoughts).

Stanford brain surgeon James Doty talks here about the power of the brain-heart connection, and explains a bit about neuroplasticity. That's just a big word for the awesome fact that our brain can change and when it does, it changes our world. He cites one of my favorite tools that I often give to patients, which is that the brain cannot tell the difference from fantasy and reality. For instance, if you think about exercise, your muscles will respond as if they are getting exercise. So when we put our thoughts (and therefore our senses) into a state of ease and pleasure (or even training!), the body responds accordingly. Do we still need to exercise and do we still want to take the actual trip to the Caribbean? Yes of course, because we have a body for a reason, to enjoy it! But the key here is that until our brain is on board with a perspective of gratitude and compassion, all bets are off; change comes first from the "supercomputer."

So how do we implement new choices around food and thoughts? This may sound simple, but because we are a society steeped in the privilege (and handicap) of abundant choices, we are often overwhelmed and therefore paralyzed. What I often tell patients is that less is more; as my teacher used to say, "simplicity is a demanding partner but enormously generous." Abundance does not lie in acquiring "more," as our culture wants you to think (so you'll buy stuff).  It lies in the richness of qualitative choices. If you value your health, then make this your daily compass, and make very small choices accordingly. Let them add up to a life nurtured by a healthy brain and body. Your cells are listening; what are you telling them?

If you want help brainstorming healthy choices around food and thoughts, please contact me. I love to think about how we can all feel happier and healthier. This is what I think about when people ask if I have a specialty. Yes I do acupuncture, but what I really do is support all of us in our purpose as human beings, which is to connect, create, and thrive. I'm so lucky and I thank you for participating! Questions and comments welcome below and via email; brookemoen@gmail.com. Much love, good food, and a happy brain today and throughout the year!