Photography by RJ Muna.
Do you want to feel radiantly alive? What charges you up? What gives your life meaning and purpose? What is the secret to feeling energized, vital, radiantly charged in mind and body? Get ready to bring in 2020 with power and clarity.
Warning; there is no pill that can do this. It takes dedicated focus and intention. And the side effects are many, including the generation of lean body composition, powerful physical function, clarity of thought, optimal hormone balance, reduced inflammation and resistance to disease. That’s a great deal. Let’s dive in.
“Do not ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive. And then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” –Howard Thurman
What is the secret to coming alive? How do we cultivate vital energy? In a world full of stressful, potentially depleting experiences each day, how do we navigate the map of energy balance? How do we fill the cup that is constantly flowing outward?
The recipe for this can be expressed by a simple (but not easy!) formula;
A. ENERGY–→ Meaningful Work and Meaningful Relationships–→ More Energy!
The key lies in creating vital energy, and then directing that energy to meaningful work and relationships that inspire us and fuel our fire. Inspiring work and relationships create a sense of deep happiness and well-being. These propel us onward, to continue climbing the mountain of hard, committed work, and to rise a little higher each day towards our greatest goals.
This energy for a thriving life, happiness, health, meaningful work and relationships is generated by what I refer to as the Four Pillars of Health and Vitality:
1. Intelligent Movement
2. Nourishing Food and Hydration
3. Quality Rest
4. Positive Mindset and Stress Resilience
This can be represented by the formula:
B. Four Pillars of Health –→ Vital Energy–→Meaningful work and relationships-→ Happiness, Inspiration, More Energy!
Self-care is health care. Energy does not happen to us. We create it. At a cellular level, when we give the body nutritious information (the epigenetics of intelligent movement, nourishing food, quality rest, positive mindset and stress resilience) our cellular health and gene expression are primed for optimal energy production and longevity. We activate longevity genes, increase insulin sensitivity, decrease inflammation, optimize mitochondrial function and we create energy!
This positive, thriving energy drives health, and fuels us for meaningful work and relationships, thereby giving our life purpose. This in turn generates more happiness, energy and well-being. The cycle is self-propagating and ever optimizing. What a fabulous tool to discover and to use proficiently! How empowering it is to know that we have the power at any time to enhance our own health and life, by paying attention and taking intelligent action with the Four Pillars of Health.
So what are the Four Pillars comprised of? How do we create this energy?
The lists that follow include a few pearls within each of the Four Pillars. In health coaching programs, I go over these in much more depth and create strategic approaches for each individual. The entire list can be overwhelming. Start with one small step, and feel the benefits build up over time. Try a couple of ideas that resonate with you. If they work, great, keep up the good work. If they don’t, come back in a week and try something else on the list. Everyone is different, and what’s important is discovering the recipe for your personal goals, your life, your energy, your health, your meaningful work and relationships. Find your best starting point, and take the launch from there.
Let’s do this! Here we go:
The Four Pillars of Health
1. Intelligent Movement.
* Move frequently at a moderate pace, 60 minutes of brisk walking or equivalent per day, (can be broken up into intervals throughout the day) especially after meals (try 10-20 minutes after each meal to balance blood glucose and insulin levels, and reduce insulin resistance. Aim for the Maffetone Method sweet spot of a heart rate maximum of 180- your age in beats per minute. If you are ill, have a chronic health condition or are taking medication, lower this by 5-10 bpm. If you are in excellent health, you might like to increase this by 5-10 bpm. This will keep you in the aerobic zone, burning fat as fuel and not over stressing the body. This is critical to healthy glucose levels, insulin sensitivity, and mitochondrial function, thereby leading to powerful immune function, reducing inflammation, being resilient to the aging process, and chronic metabolic diseases such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.
* Move frequently throughout the day. Science reveals that it is healthier to move in small amounts consistently throughout the day rather than performing one workout and being sedentary for the rest of the day. Small bouts of movement throughout the day really add up. This is referred to as NEAT, Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis.
* Lift heavy things with excellent technique 2-3x per week (10-30min). Start with body weight movements such as Primal Essential squats, planks, push ups, and pull ups, scaled to your ability. Add resistance bands, weights and power movements as your ability allows. Take the time to study proficient technique and focus on this each session.
The benefits of strength training, especially as we age, are so paramount, that I consider it a key component of health. Beyond the aesthetics of lean body mass and defined musculature, strength training is foundational to a host of benefits including;
*enhanced daily function
*optimal athletic performance
Feeling powerful in one’s body and mind is an incredible experience every person has the right to master.
* Pilates is an excellent way to build strength and mobility with control. It allows one to create awareness of alignment, core activation, centering, control, breathing, precision, and full body engagement. The focused work develops personal mastery and resilience.
* Sprint once in a while (every 7-10 days). See my blog entry on Sprinting to take the leap!
Women are encouraged to lighten training loads during the pre-menstrual (luteal) phase and the beginning of menstruation. During these points in the cycle, peak hormone levels create laxity in the connective tissues and inflammation in the uterus which makes deep core engagement challenging. Keep moving, but opt for lighter intensity and loads to prevent injury. Alissa Vitti and Sara Gustafson are great resources for more information.
2. Nourishing Foods and Hydration.
Create an explosion of health! Choose foods high in nutrients, low in toxins. Feel better than ever.
*Eat nourishing non-toxic foods; Quality is key. Focus on delicious foods high in nutrients, and low in toxins. Include; meat, fish, fowl, eggs, (wild caught /grass fed/local organic whenever possible), vegetables and fruits (organic, local; prepare appropriately to reduce anti-nutrients, be wary of nightshades) and healthy sources of fat (avocado, olive, coconut, ghee, grass fed animal fat). See the Primal Blueprint Pyramid.
Start with high quality nutrient dense protein (0.7-1.0 grams per pound body mass is a general target), accompanied by dark green and colorful vegetables, and garnish with spices and healthy fats to satiety. Choose small wild fish from clean, fresh, cold waters to optimize healthy omega-3’s and minimize mercury and toxins. A helpful acronym for healthy fish is SMASH (sardines, mackerel, anchovies, salmon (wild), herring). Choose grass fed meats, and eggs from pasture raised chickens. Women especially are encouraged to refuel with high quality protein within 90 minutes of working out.
Superfoods such as organs from grass fed animals (liver is an all star!), bone broth, herbs, spices, and kelp from toxin free waters, are nutrient powerhouses. Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchee, kombucha and dark chocolate are probiotic foods which help foster a healthy gut microbiome. Prebiotic foods (green bananas/plaintains, artichokes, asparagus, resistant potato starch, cooked and cooled rice/potatoes) feed healthy bacteria in the colon, and result in the creation of short chain fatty acids such as butyrate which decrease inflammation and heal the gut lining.
Supplements can be helpful in our highly stressful world with soils depleted of nutrients. Be careful to select high quality forms, free of toxins and binders, and with high bioavailability. Some good ones for the general population to consider include a quality multivitamin, Vitamin D3 with K2, magnesium (malate, glycinate, or threonate), omega 3’s, probiotics, and collagen from 100% grass fed animals. Requirements for supplements are based on bio-individuality and change over time. Remember the adage, one cannot supplement themselves out of a poor diet. Whole food first, with supplements as needed for support. An excellent evidence based resource for assessing supplement efficacy is Examine. Referenced by Stanford professor, Andrew Huberman, this site links to peer reviewed journal articles providing support for the information provided on supplements.
* Avoid toxins: first to go are sugars, grains, processed foods and veggie/seed oils such as canola, cottonseed, safflower, soybean, or grapeseed. These are often used in packaged foods and in restaurants. Check labels and ask about the ingredients in your food. You will probably uncover hidden inflammatory triggers that your body and brain are eager to be free of. Instead, enjoy avocado oil, coconut oil, ghee for cooking, and olive oil for salads. Alcohol in moderation or not at all. Focus on low glycemic index foods, as insulin resistance creates inflammation and is the leading cause of chronic metabolic diseases. Avoid CAFO (confined agricultural feeding operations) products. Eat real, whole nutrient dense foods from clean sources (grass fed, pasture raised, organic, and local whenever possible).
*Elimination Diet: If you are experiencing any bloating, gas, indigestion, brain fog, depression, anxiety, fatigue, joint aches, headaches, mood swings, skin problems, frequent colds/flus or other health malaise, an elimination diet for 21-30 days can be an incredible boost to your health. Often, by simply eliminating sugars, processed foods, grains, dairy, alcohol and caffeine, nightshades, beans and legumes, while focusing on the nutrient dense foods discussed above (especially cooked meats/fish, cooked vegetables, healthy fats, bone broth and gelatin), one can create important shifts in health quickly, as the body clears inflammation and resets to optimal function. Several plants contain anti-nutrients such as lectins (of which gluten is one type), phytates, and oxalates which can create inflammation in the body and prevent the absorption of nutrients. Nightshades are a group of plant foods which can create inflammation in certain people. Eliminating these foods can reduce inflammation in the body, and promote healing of the digestive tract. Allowing the body to heal itself, including the integrity of the gut wall (keeping toxins out and nutrients in), and generating a healthy, robust microbiome, is elemental to all systems of health. Work with your health professional to determine the best path for you. Some examples of elimination diets include the Paleo Autoimmune Diet, FODMAPs, GAPS, Dr. Gundry’s Lectin Free Diet (refer to his book, The Plant Paradox), Carnivore (Dr. Paul Saladino’s book, Carnivore Code is a great resource), and others. Some great online programs include The Whole 30 and The 21 Day Primal Reset.
*Intermittent Fasting/Condensed Eating Window/Time Restricted Eating. Allowing the body time to heal and recover by taking time off eating, at least 12 hours between your last meal/snack and breakfast the next day, has tremendous benefits. This includes time off any ingested calories, eating or drinking. As Mark Sisson says, “Most of the good stuff that happens in the body, happens when we are not eating.” These benefits include giving the digestive system a rest, upregulating fat burning and longevity genes, generating ketones, allowing the organs to perform their optimal functions, and allowing the body to switch into healing and detoxification modes. This is when cell autophagy and repair occur (especially important in the brain), hormones such as growth hormone, testosterone, BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) are optimized, fat burning goes into high gear, ketones are produced (extremely healthy for the brain and gut), immune function is heightened, and longevity genes are activated. Metabolic flexibility and insulin sensitivity are enhanced. Start with twelve hours a night, and progress to longer fasting time if it feels right for you. Finish eating three hours before bedtime to enhance all these benefits. Moving from a Fed to a Fasting or Unfed state is enhanced through movement. This is one reason why a 20-30 min walk after eating is highly recommended.
*Notes on Nutrition for Women. Studies on Intermittent Fasting are biased towards men, and women must be respectful of their unique hormonal profiles. Women are encouraged to optimize their hormonal profiles, and these are very dependent on adequate energy intake. Fasting is not for everyone. Too little energy, especially carbohydrates, can disrupt normal menstrual cycles, suppress thyroid function, spike cortisol, and stimulate fat storage. Juliet Starrett of The Ready State, suggests active women get at least 130-140 grams of carbohydrates per day. Human performance expert and author of ROAR, Dr. Stacy Sims suggests women refuel with .35-.45 grams of carbs per pound of body weight, for each hour of exercise, in addition to basal metabolic needs. She also recommends women to refuel with 20-25 g of protein within 30 mins of exercise, and to aim for 0.9-1.0 g protein per pound of body weight per day.
* Honor circadian rhythms. Ingesting food gives your body a signal to be active and to use energy. Eating early in the waking period, during the times one is active, helps set healthy circadian rhythms. Insulin sensitivity also tends to be higher early in the day, allowing fuels to be metabolized more effectively. Giving your body at least three hours without food before going to bed at night allows the body to switch gears from the Fed state, including digestion and the activities of the day, to a Fasted state of deep repair and detoxification modes during sleep. An excellent resource to help observe and optimize one’s circadian rhythm is the Salk Institute’s My Circadian Clock.
*Hydrate. Drink filtered water (charcoal filter plus reverse osmosis is optimal for removing toxins) or spring water. Aim for drinking half your body weight in ounces each day. Add electrolytes such as high quality sodium, potassium and magnesium, especially during/after workouts and in high temperatures or stressful conditions. A baseline of 5g of sodium (high quality sea salt or Himalayan salt), 1g potassium, and 400 mg magnesium (glycinate, threonate or malate) are recommended for optimal health. Additional levels are needed for high intensity workouts, and exposure to high temperatures or stress. A glass of water with electrolytes, lemon or apple cider vinegar upon waking each morning is a powerful way to detoxify and energize for the day.
*Managing Cravings with Strategic Interventions. Resetting the brain and body set points while eliminating sugars and processed foods can create cravings, especially during the first 1-2 weeks. Know it will get better and hold on!
Ways to reduce cravings include;
- Movement. Go for a walk, do your favorite exercises, especially outdoors, with music and/or a friend.
- Positive distraction. Talk with a friend, do something you love, challenge your brain.
- Spend time in nature. This lowers cortisol and leads to a sense of peace and well being.
- Eat nutrient dense proteins and fats. These not only provide valuable macronutrients, vitamins and minerals for all cellular processes, but they trigger satiety centers in the brain, leaving you feeling satisfied.
- Eat fibrous vegetables. You will be rebalancing the brain’s cravings for sugar, and changing the type of bacterial flora (microbiome) in the gut, shifting away from unhealthy strains that thrive on sugar, to healthy strains that thrive on fibrous veggies.
- Practice Mindfulness and Diaphragmatic Breathing; through the nose, into the abdomen. See Mindset and Box Breathing notes below.
- Hot/cold therapy. Take a cold shower, dive in the ocean, take a warm bath or sauna.
- Drink warm herbal teas.
- Brush your teeth.
- Acknowledge the importance of your actions. Know that you are taking on an extremely important health measure. High blood glucose and insulin levels lead to insulin resistance over time, and this is the leading cause of major chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, dementia and Alzheimer’s. By lowering blood glucose and insulin to healthy levels, you will boost the immune system profoundly, and be more resilient to arthritis, cognitive decline, anxiety and depression. It’s worth the investment!
3. Quality Rest and Recovery.
Sleep is when the body’s healing systems are on hyper drive, healing the physical body, integrating cognitive information, and processing emotions for mental health. Aim for 7-8.5 hours of high quality sleep (without prescription sleep medications which reduce deep sleep quality) each night. Non REM sleep is more prevalent in the early hours of sleep, and REM sleep increases proportionally later in the sleep cycle. A wonderful resource on the science of sleep is the book, Why We Sleep, by professor of Neuroscience, Matthew Walker.
*Sleep in a cool, dark, quiet, clean room for optimal sleep quality. Create a sleep sanctuary.
*Finish eating at least two hours before bed. A gentle walk after dinner helps digestion, blood glucose/insulin balance, and calms the mind. Eating close to bed time elevates glucose and insulin levels. This not only disrupts one’s quality of sleep, but also inhibits the healthy cycling of hormones such as Growth Hormone, which are critical to healthy metabolism, healing and repair of tissues.
*Tech shut down. Power down tech devices 1-2 hrs before bed. This will prevent stimulation of the mind by blue light (preventing melatonin release) and by cognitive input.
*Journal. Write down your thoughts, worries, and things you plan to do to take action, at least an hour before the time you would like to fall asleep. This cognitive download allows the mind to begin to relax. Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology, Matthew Walker describes the anxiety that we feel at night as being very different than the anxiety we might feel about the same thing during the day. At night our minds are prone to rumination, making it hard to fall asleep. He states that keeping a Worry Journal, and writing before bedtime can enhance sleep outcomes by 50%. Find more scientifically backed ways to enhance sleep in his book, Why We Sleep.
*High quality Collagen/gelatin before bed can help with sleep. It is also enhances fat metabolism, and provides vital amino acids for healing the brain, gut, joints, soft tissue, skin, hair and nails.
*Magnesium glycinate and threonate can be helpful for sleep.
*Honor Circadian Rhythms to optimize cortisol/ melatonin cycles. Get natural outdoor sunlight as early in the day as possible. The low angle of early morning sun optimally stimulates the retina and suprachiasmatic nucleus in the brain, to optimize the morning cortisol pulse, and set melatonin release for 12-16 hours later. The effect is reduced by 50% if the light comes through a window or sunglasses. While blue light is helpful during the day, we want to minimize exposure to it after sunset, as it will suppress melatonin release. Set tech devices to Night Shift mode, wear blue light blocking glasses, or even better, do a complete tech shutdown.
Exposure to sunlight is also critical for optimizing dopamine levels, regulating mood and learning/performance. The dopamine boost from bright light also stimulates LH and FSH production, leading to significant rises in testosterone.
* Rest between workouts, and between sets of exercises.
* Rest 10-20 minutes in the afternoon. Non Sleep Deep Rest, NSDR, resets one’s neurophysiology (such as dopamine levels) for optimal health, performance and well being. Recommended by Stanford neurobiologist Andrew Huberman, resources for augmenting rest and recovery include Yoga Nidra and free resources for self-hypnosis at Reverihealth.
* Take a vacation once a year, or more!
* Take a rest day. Bonus points for a tech shut down day! This allows the brain to go into Default Mode where deep processing, creativity and healing occur.
4. Positive Mindset and Stress Resilience
We can elevate the quality of our lives at any moment by paying attention and taking intelligent action. The ability to maintain calm in face of challenge, to navigate our thoughts and to choose the optimal path, to be creative rather than reactive: it is a superpower, elevating our vitality, our immunity, and our meaningful work in the world.
We change the chemistry and structure of our brains through what we choose to focus on and how we navigate our thoughts. A positive, growth mindset not only helps us to feel better in the moment, but it also induces long term structural changes in the brain, up-regulating endocannabinoid, endorphin and dopamine receptors, thereby making us more receptive to feelings of joy and hope, and more resilient to stress, over a lifetime.
Mind training is an invaluable exercise in creating health and wellness. Here are some of my favorite tools to naturally elevate the empowering actions of chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin. I hope you like them too!
* Learn mindful techniques to allow for deep recovery following intense exertion, and to shift neural pathways to positive, healthy cycles. Our minds are constantly scanning the environment for threats to our survival. By learning to switch from a threat response of fear, to a challenge response of “I’m excited”, we can harness the positive aspect of stress physiology (including dopamine and epinephrine) and use it to our advantage.
* Be intentional. Set a daily intention each morning. This can take just 60 seconds. Who do you want to be? How do you want to show up? What world class identity do you envision for yourself? What qualities are necessary to do this? Perhaps wisdom, courage, virtue, love, hope? What specific steps can you take to express these qualities and live in integrity with your highest vision for yourself?
*Positive affirmations and mantras carry tremendous power. They can be as simple as, ” I am a happy and calm”, “I am valuable”, “Everyday, in every way, I am healthier and stronger”, “Drop the fear.” Create affirmations and mantras that are meaningful to you, and recite them often. Doing so first thing in the morning is a powerful way to start your day.
* Practice gratitude. Start with three things. Watch this grow to 30 before you know it! By focusing on what we are grateful for, we help amplify the work of serotonin, which creates a sense of well being, happiness, decreased anxiety or depression, and enhances sleep.
* Practice breathing techniques. An easy one is Navy Seal inspired box breathing; start with inhaling for 4 counts, hold for 4, exhale for 4, hold for 4. Breathing not only provides vital oxygen and eliminates toxins, but resets the mind and neurophysiology away from harmful stress reactions (sympathetic Fight or Flight mode) towards healing and revitalization (parasympathetic Rest and Digest mode).
*Navigate your thoughts, as a steadfast guardian of the mind. Navy Seal Commander and author, Mark Divine, describes his method of creating a sentinel of the mind, restructuring negative loops into positive ones with the DIRECT Method;
When a negative or distracting thought pops up, DIRECT YOUR MIND:
D=Detect. Consciously acknowledge when a negative or distracting thought arises.
I=Interdict it with a simple command such as ‘Stop!’ or ‘No!’
R=Redirect your mind to new, empowering thoughts.
E=Energize. Commit to the new thought by getting your whole being to support it, entering a new physical state that matches your mental shift. For me, this means MOVE!
C=Communicate. Talk to yourself in a positive way to override any residual negativity and prevent new destructive thoughts from creeping in.
T=Train your mind daily to create long-term positive changes and resilience.
This is similar to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy practices which guide one to observe their thoughts, distinguish if they are based in reality, observe the feelings which arise, and choose a constructive response. Some excellent CBT books, podcasts, and courses are available through the work of Dr. Seth Gilihan .
* Shift to a positive mindset. Appreciate each opportunity to learn and grow. See the opportunities within challenges and commit to growing stronger from them. If you make a mistake, think “Oops, that needs work.” And if you succeed, think, “Go me!” and give yourself a virtual high five. This activates reward centers in the brain, generating positive neurochemistry around healthy habits and life perspectives. Harness your power to rewire your own neurophysiology.
* Loving-kindness. Send intentions for happiness and peace to yourself, to those you love, and even to those you don’t. It’s amazing how quickly this elevates well-being and quality of life. A simple model is, “May we be healthy and strong. May we be happy and peaceful. May we be safe and protected.” Some of my favorite resources are The Book of Joy, by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, and Lovingkindness by Sharon Salzberg.
*Practice Mindfulness. From a peaceful walk in nature, to formal disciplines, Mindfulness practices focus on appreciation for the Here and Now, thereby elevating levels of serotonin and oxytocin. Some excellent resources for guidance include the Apps Headspace, Calm, and Reverie and the book Wherever You Go, There You Are, by Jon Kabat-Zin.
* Smile and laugh. These turn on your dopamine factories! Take charge of your own neurochemistry.
* Get sunshine and spend time in nature. The benefits are endless.
*Take your dog for a walk. Don’t have a dog? Borrow your neighbor’s dog, or better yet, visit your local shelter and volunteer to walk a rescue in need. The unconditional love and joy will boost your oxytocin and lower stress levels quickly. Owning a dog is also one of the best ways to boost your microbiome, and hence, immunity and well being. As the quality of one’s microbiome flourishes, neurochemistry does too. The gut-brain connection is validated by science, as the two are directly connected by the vagus nerve, the neuroendocrine system, and share cellular communication from embryological development.
*Surround yourself with inspiring beings. Invest in time with those you love. Remove negative influences and relationships from your life as much as possible. Practice healthy boundaries.
* Play. Delight in life. Find what makes you happy and do more of it. This is the fire that fuels life.
* Practice Presence. Focus on what you can control. Let go of what you cannot.
* Be Reflective and Creative. In times of conflict, pause and reflect. Create a positive response rather than being reactive.
*Challenge yourself to shift from short periods of intense stressors to intense recovery. This stimulates hormesis and resilience to stress. Some examples of stressors include cold therapy, sauna, sprinting or interval training if your physical condition allows, and intermittent fasting.
*Optimize. One of my favorite resources for optimizing health through the integration of ancient philosophy and modern science is Brian Johnson’s optimize.me. This is a premiere place to dive deep into the world’s greatest books on health, fitness, nutrition, mindfulness, philosophy, and neuroscience, with strategies to interweave the messages into creating a thriving, meaningful life. And it is now free!
Through the Four Pillars of Health, we can endlessly optimize. These lists are by no means comprehensive, and can be constantly expanded upon (sauna, cold therapy, super foods, supplements, nasal breathing, heart rate variability, and so much more.) The goal is to increase nutrients, or positive factors, and remove toxins, or negative factors, within each of the Four Pillars. The key is to choose one step to take and see it if works for you. If it does, commit to it, and be rewarded with abundant vital energy to propel you forward to more meaningful work and relationships in your life. And then try another step within the Four Pillars. The list of benefits will continue to multiply: happiness, well-being, mental clarity, a healthy strong body and mind, resistance to illness or disease, higher performance in athletics and life, radiant energy to enjoy time with those you love and to perform work that gives life meaning and purpose.
It is up to each of us to take excellent care of ourselves and thereby stimulate the regenerative, detoxifying, energizing processes within our minds and bodies. It’s not about deprivation. Rather, it’s about fueling ourselves with the highest quality of information available for a vital, thriving, meaningful life.
What do you want? Decide and take action.
Learn more, do more, dream more, become more.
Let’s give the world all we’ve got!
Here’s to vitality in 2020 and beyond.
Best to all,
Disclaimer; Coaching services and information on this site include education, guidance and tips on primal living and generally healthy movement. I am not a medical doctor and services are not intended to be medical advice or a substitute for a diagnosis, treatment, or prescription that a physician, licensed dietitian, physical therapist or health care professional might recommend.