Today, I’m happy to say that dermatitis is no longer an issue for me and I regularly have people tell me how good my skin looks (most of them have no idea what a huge compliment that is). As I look back over the many, many, many things that helped me heal, a few stand out as incredibly important.
1. Hello Leafy Greens
The summer before I got sick, my partner Daniel & I, decided to split a CSA box with some friends. I ate more leafy greens that summer than the previous 10 combined. Prior to becoming a CSA member, my leafy green vegetable intake consisted of a salad, maybe twice a week, and occasionally some steamed broccoli (which doesn’t really count as leafy).
One of the first things I did, in an attempt to heal my skin, was significantly increase my leafy green consumption. I’m talking at least a cup or two of leafy greens per meal. To this day, I consume at least 6 cups of leafy greens per day. Kale, salad mix, spinach, collard greens, swiss chard, arugula, mustard greens, romaine lettuce, cilantro, and parsley, to name a few. I eat salad regularly and enjoy leafy greens cooked in breakfast scrambles, smoothies, and many a one-pot dinner.
Leafy greens are adored in the world of health & wellness because they are packed with micronutrients. From Vitamin C to Magnesium and Calcium to B Vitamins, leafy greens contain almost every vitamin and mineral you can think of. The vast majority of us are seriously deficient in many critical minerals and vitamins, and I was certainly no exception. In addition, leafy green vegetables provide fiber, which is critical to the health of our gut micro-biota, which are the trillions of microorganisms that live inside our digestive tract and play a critical role in our health.
It’s important to buy organic whenever possible to avoid consuming herbicides, pesticides, and a host of other harmful chemicals. You can consult the Clean 15 – Dirty Dozen list to determine which conventional produce has the lowest (and highest) contamination.
If all those leafy greens cause bloating, gas, or any other digestive upset, I have a couple of suggestions. First, be sure to chew thoroughly to effectively break down the fiber and give saliva a chance to mix with the veggies (saliva contains an enzyme called amylase which breaks down carbohydrates). Second, try eating well cooked leafy greens instead of raw. For example, sautéed kale with eggs instead of a kale smoothie. You can also forego the stem on things like kale, collards, and chard and just eat the leaves.
I started eating healthier in 2011 thanks to my awesome partner and with the help of a weekly CSA. But, to be honest, I still ate a ton of junk food. From frequent stops at Wendy’s on my afternoon commute to plowing through a package of Oreos while watching a movie, my diet was full of packaged and processed food.
One of the first nutrition books I read was In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan (which I highly recommend). Two things in that book made had a huge impact on how I shop. First, Michael pointed out that the grocery store layout features processed junk food (cookies, pasta, cereal, crackers, etc.) in the middle of the store while real food (produce, meat, eggs, dairy, etc.) are up against the walls. So, if you want to eat more real food, shop the perimeter of the store. Simple. Genius.
Second, he had a simple suggestion for determining if something is really food or a food like substance...the ingredient label. Now, I’d never really paid much attention to ingredient labels because I figured calories were the only really important thing to pay attention to. Since I wasn't concerned about my weight, I never looked at calories or any other part of the label for that matter). Big mistake. I still maintain that calories are the least important part of an ingredient label but reading the label is super important. Michael Pollan suggests that if a food has more than 5 ingredients, then it wasn’t food, instead it was an "edible food like substance".
If we think about it for a second it makes total sense, real whole foods don’t have ingredients: kale is kale, beef is beef, milk is milk (although, you’d be surprised how much milk has a long list of ingredients these days). If you pick up a box of cereal or a loaf of bread, I’m willing to bet it has 15, 20, or more ingredients, most of which have long complicated names.
So, when I went shopping I made sure that the majority of my food didn’t have an ingredient list to begin with (produce, meat, fat, etc.). For the few items that did have an ingredient list, I made sure they only contained a few ingredients AND I knew what all those ingredients were.
3. Learning the Language Body
When my rash began to spread across my body I was scared. I was also pissed off at my body. I was 27 years old and it felt like my body was betraying me. But, the truth is, my body was not out to get me. In fact, the human body wants to be healthy and it's good at telling us when something isn't working right. Unfortunately, I didn't understand the language my body was speaking.
I love foreign languages. One of my majors in college was Spanish and I decided to take French my senior year. It took me years to realize that the human body speaks a language as well and like any foreign language, we can learn it. Our bodies speak to us via symptoms. Headaches, fatigue, constipation, stomachaches, rashes, and more; these symptoms are telling us that an imbalance exists within the body. When these symptoms arise, we have an opportunity to make dietary & lifestyle changes to regain balance...and health.
I grew up thinking that genetics determined health, so when a rash began to spread across my body I felt angry and hopeless, as if I was destined to suffer the rest of my life. Thankfully, I learned the truth, which is that genes are not nearly as important as environment. Don’t get me wrong; our genes do play a role in which illnesses and diseases we are most susceptible to. Genetics, as Dr. Tom O’Bryan likes to say, “shows us the weak link in our chain”. However, researchers in the field of epigenetics have shown us that environment determines the expression of genes. Environment, our our case, refers to our diet and lifestyle. Not surprisingly, healthy habits create an environment that supports positive gene activity (gene expression that promote health) whereas a life full of processed food and stress leads to the expression of genes linked to chronic illness.
Understanding the role my daily choices had on my health was incredibly empowering. It also allowed me to have a completely different relationship with my body. I was able to see that my body was talking to me. Fatigue, digestive upset, and yes, my rash, were all telling me something was wrong and it was my responsibility to decode that message...and then give my body what it needed to heal.
I’ve learned a lot about myself in the last 5 years. I discovered that my body had been talking to me for at least a decade BEFORE the rash showed up. I’d been living with fatigue and digestive distress for so long that I’d come to think it was normal. I’ve made a lot of big changes in my life and done a lot of specific things to improve my health.
The three topics discussed today are on the top of my list of high leverage habits...and there are many more. I could write an entire book about the foundational habits that have helped me to heal…oh wait, I did. If you haven’t read it, it’s called Nature + Nutrition: A Guide to Lasting Health and it’s 100% free. So, grab your copy today!
You can also take a the free Health Quiz on my website to begin to see where your body might be talking to you.
Now, I want to hear from you. Have you found any of these three suggestions to be helpful in your healing journey? What others dietary or lifestyle changes do you consider to be highly important? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.