Even though I crave caffeine, carbohydrates, and chocolate right before my period, these foods make me feel bloated and aggravate my cramps. So to avoid the kind of aches and pains that can leave me feeling sapped for days, I make it a point to eat especially well during that time–lots of big salads and antioxidant-packed smoothies. When I told my acupuncturist about my pre-period diet, he gently chided me, saying that these eating habits might actually be making me feel worse. According to Chinese medicine, cold foods cause contraction and stagnation in the body, hardly helpful for cramps. Warm foods, on the other hand, increase circulation and help keep energy flowing–just what you need before and during menstruation. I’d never heard that advice before, and it got me thinking: What other tips do holistic doctors have up their sleeves that could improve overall health? So I chose five; an ayurvedic physician, an integrative doc, an acupuncturist, a naturopath, and a dietitian and asked them to share their wisdom. Here’s what they had to say.
The Ayurvedic Approach: John Douillard, DC, PhD
Ayurvedic practitioner and director of the LifeSpa Ayurveda Retreat Center in Boulder, Colorado
Never skip meals
Forgoing breakfast or lunch is a big ayurvedic no-no. Like a car running out of gas, when you don’t “fill up” on a regular basis, you simply don’t have enough fuel to burn. When this happens, the fuel-starved body must call on emergency reserves, in the form of adrenalin. Sure, that adrenalin can give you a short-term boost of energy. But running solely on this “fight-or-flight” hormone causes all sorts of physical changes, releasing a flood of stress hormones into the body and increasing blood pressure and heart rate. An overabundance of these hormones not only causes cravings, anger, irritability, and exhaustion, but it also can become toxic over time. Even if you feel rushed, make time to eat three squares a day so you have enough fuel to see you through to bedtime.
Make lunch your biggest meal
According to ayurveda, different times of day correspond to three energies, expressed as vata (air) in the morning, pitta (fire) in the afternoon, and kapha (earth) in the evening. Most of us eat a big dinner between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m., which is kapha time, precisely when our digestion slows down as the body prepares for sleep. Eat your biggest meal of the day between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.–pitta time–when your digestive fire is at its peak. By eating a big, nourishing meal at lunch, your body will burn the food more effectively and keep you from overeating at dinner.
You may have heard that snacking between meals helps stabilize blood sugar. But eating six meals a day only works as a short-term solution for people who need to stabilize their blood sugar–not a long-term approach to eating, says Douillard. Why? When the body fasts between meals (including overnight), it burns fat cells, and burning fat helps release toxins and pollutants that have accumulated in the body. Constant noshing–which requires that the body focus on digestion rather than burning fat–doesn’t allow for this detoxification to take place. “Even if you snack on something healthy, like nuts or carrots, the body will have no chance to burn your stored fat and excrete toxins,” he says. Without this precious chance to cleanse, these toxins can lead to inflammation, a known cause of all sorts of diseases. If saying no to noshing represents a big transition, cut back slowly: A six-times-a-day eater should eat five times a day for a few days and eventually cut that down to three times.
The Medical Model: Christiane Northrup, MD
Author of The Secret Pleasures of Menopause (Hay House, October 2008)
Breathe like a baby.
“Babies don’t breathe through their mouths unless they are stressed,” says Northrup, who calls mouth breathing “a stress response.” Because it’s shallow, it doesn’t allow you to pull air deep into the lower lungs, she says. Nose breathing, on the other hand, produces a full, deep breath that also triggers the parasympathetic nervous system (which helps calm you). Breathing deep into your belly will expand your rib cage over time, allowing you to oxygenate your body more efficiently–and that, in turn, allows your metabolism to become more efficient. Try deep breathing by lying down on the floor with a book on your belly. As you inhale deeply through your nose, feel the book rise. As you exhale, squeeze out all the air as the book lowers.
Pump iron to sharpen your mind
Weight training can certainly keep your muscles and bones strong as you age. But in addition to helping you stay structurally sound, pumping iron can help you on an emotional level. “Strong muscles translate to a sense of empowerment in the world,” says Northrup, who believes that women who lift weights on a regular basis often have more confidence. “New research on exercise shows that when we develop our muscles, we also change the neuronal patterns in our brains,” she says, “which in essence means you’re also altering your brain.” Women can get all the benefits they need from two 40-minute strength-training sessions a week. Just be sure to use weights that are heavy enough to fatigue your muscles toward the end of your repetitions–most likely 5 pounds or more for most exercises.
Get your rest
Sleep is the most efficient way to metabolize excess stress hormones, such as adrenalin and cortisol in the body, says Northrup. “And those hormones lead to cellular inflammation, which is the root cause of all chronic, degenerative disease.” Northrup recommends taking a nap when you can and giving yourself permission to sleep as late as you want on occasion. While eight hours a night is ideal, some of us need more. If you wake up tired, that’s an indication that you need more shut-eye. Wake up refreshed, and you’re probably getting as much as you need.
Advice From the Acupuncturist: Andy Seplow, Lac
Licensed acupuncturist, medical herbalist, and nutritionist in Berkeley, California
Your mother’s insistence that you send thank-you cards may have bugged you as a child, but expressing appreciation is more than just good manners. Sharing emotions like joy and gratitude are integral to overall good health, while chronic dissatisfaction and resentment can lead to physical problems down the road. “In Chinese medicine, each organ is associated with a different emotion,” Seplow explains. “Pensiveness or overthinking injures the spleen and digestive organs, and repressed anger and resentment can negatively affect the liver.” You can keep your organs healthy by cultivating a healthy attitude and taking responsibility for your emotional state rather than relying on other people, like your partner or kids, to make you feel better.
The 70 percent rule
Chinese medicine adheres to the principle of moderation, which Seplow calls the 70 percent rule: Don’t do anything beyond 70 percent of your capacity. For example, eat only until you feel 70 percent full. If you have a meal and leave some empty space, you give your body the energy it needs. But if you eat too much, you’ll likely feel bloated and tired–and your digestion will slow down. And though this rule might seem counterintuitive to a nation raised on the “no pain, no gain” motto, you should apply it to exercise too. It’s great to get your heart rate up and maybe even break a sweat, but don’t do so much that you feel depleted afterward. As in most things with Chinese medicine, the rule has a philosophical slant. “Everything in moderation, including moderation,” says Seplow. “You can’t be too dogmatic.”
Eat warm foods
Ice water. Raw veggies. Frozen smoothies. They may taste good, but according to Chinese medicine, too many of these foods can chill your body, which slows down your circulation, weakens your digestive fire, and creates stagnation in your organs. “The digestive energy is likened to a fire,” says Seplow. “You don’t want to put a lot of cold things into your body because over time, they’ll put out that fire. Eating foods that keep your fire strong is a prescription for longevity.” This is a particularly important rule to follow for women, acupuncturists say. Cold foods, which cause the heart to work harder to boost circulation and maintain optimal body temperature, take away some of the energy the body needs for conception and menstruation. So turn to warm, nurturing soups and stews as the weather begins to cool off–and remember to limit raw, cold, and frozen foods year-round.
Notes From a Naturopath: Lise Alschuler, ND
President of the board of directors for the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians
Our multitasking, technologically enhanced, workaholic culture can take a huge toll on our overall health. Some people thrive on cramming as much as possible into their days. “But for most of us,” says Alschuler, “this causes serious energy depletion,” which can lead to illness. The body secretes adrenalin and cortisol when stressed and abnormally high levels of these hormones can create disease-causing inflammation in the body. To counter chronic stress, Alschuler recommends carving out some unstructured time for reflection. “That can help you remember what it feels like to be relaxed and in the present moment.”
Get an annual physical
As much as you might dread your yearly doctor visit, it is important, says Alschuler. “At that visit, your doctor will order the right lab tests and ask the right questions that will help clue her in to what health problems could be happening for you now or in the future.” For instance, if you tell your doctor that you feel tired all the time and don’t know why, she might order a thyroid test to see if there’s an imbalance. Of course, this requires that you have a physician you feel comfortable talking to and who really listens to your concerns and complaints, and then responds appropriately with dietary advice, follow-up tests, or referrals.
Find your passion
“When you have passion for life, for friends, and for the planet, you’ll be more motivated to live healthier, exercise more, and eat well,” says Alschuler. “If you’re motivated by worry, fear, or guilt, your health will certainly be impacted.” Alschuler recommends spending some time each day doing something you love or hanging out with people who inspire you. “Try revisiting a favorite childhood hobby, such as playing the violin or painting,” she says. When we lose our connection to things we love, we can have a tougher time expressing our inner joy and happiness.
To-dos From a Dietitian: Alison Eastwood, RD
Nutritionist in San Francisco who has worked with researcher Dean Ornish, MD
Get out the measuring tape
Many of us have been programmed to worship a number on the bathroom scale, but waist circumference is more important than weight, says Eastwood. A large waist can increase your risk of insulin resistance, the body’s inability to process sugars, which raises your risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Women should have no more than a 35-inch waist, and men should measure 40 inches or less. If your waist circumference is more than that, the advice is simple, says Eastwood: “Cut down on food intake, exercise more–or even better, do a combination of the two.”
Stop late-night noshing
Even if you’re not looking to lose weight, put an end to any post-dinner munching. Eating too much late at night can wreak havoc on your digestive system, disrupt the body’s natural wake-sleep cycle, called the circadian rhythm, and create a vicious cycle that’s hard to break: If you eat late at night, you’re less likely to wake up hungry, more likely to skip breakfast as a result, overeat at lunchtime because you’re starving, eat next to nothing at dinner because you’re still too full from lunch, and then get hungry and eat just before bedtime. When you wake up, the cycle starts again–and it can affect your quality of sleep. To avoid this pattern, Eastwood recommends setting a clear boundary about not eating mindlessly after dinner. If you must have something, drink some herbal tea or have a piece of fruit.
Get a dose of D
According to research, most Americans lack sufficient vitamin D, and that’s a problem. “Not getting enough D is linked with chronic diseases such as cancer,” says Eastwood. The body creates vitamin D from sunlight. But since few of us live near the equator or spend much time in the sun–at least without lots of sunscreen or protective clothing–we don’t get enough of this crucial vitamin. Eastwood recommends supplementing with 1,000 to 2,000 IU daily.
Nora Isaacs is a freelance writer in San Francisco