One Simple Way to Improve Your Health Today

This week’s theme for #UpbeatAuthors is one simple way to improve your health today. I can boil this down to one word — awareness.

So what do I mean by that? Allow me to tell you a story about myself. Back in February, I had a surge in my anxiety level, and I wasn’t really sure why. I figured, most likely accurately, that it was a combination of factors — hormonal changes, not eating the right things, getting a bit older, needing to lose weight, and, honestly, the depressing state of discourse in the country. I knew I had to make some changes. I had to be aware of the things that were affecting me in a negative way and do something about them.

First, the weight. I knew already how to attack this issue because I’d done it before. I began tracking my calories again in a food journal and as I read more about anxiety and ways to help alleviate it, I also cut out caffeine. Now, on the rare occasion when I have a Coke, it’s the caffeine-free variety. Not diet, however, because I hate how artificial sweeteners taste and it’s my personal, I’m-not-a-medical-professional opinion that those artificial sweeteners are more dangerous to our bodies than sugar if the sugar is only an occasional indulgence and you don’t have a medical condition like diabetes. But I almost exclusively drink water. I also cut out most sweets and exercise portion control on the few occasions I indulge. I eliminated deep-fried foods. Well, honestly, I’d cut out almost all of them already, with the exception of French fries, but then those went bye-bye, too. They’re not remotely healthy and cutting fried foods from my diet had the extra benefit of alleviating some of my digestion problems and discomfort. And when I tried to eat some fries while out of town at a recent conference, I didn’t particularly enjoy most of them and with one exception didn’t even eat half of them. So now I don’t think I’ll even crave fries, which is sort of a miracle. But I like feeling better more than I like to eat fries.

Some years ago I read the book Food Rules by Michael Pollan. One of his rules that really stuck with me was to do the vast majority of your grocery shopping around the outer edges of the store and try to avoid the aisles. Why? Think about it. The outer edges are where the fresh produce, meats, seafood and dairy products are. In the middle is where the processed “foods” that are packed with sugar, salt and preservatives are. Another of Pollan’s rules was to eat real food, and much of what is in the middle of the store isn’t real food in that it can’t be found in nature. It’s made in some company’s chemistry lab. There’s a reason we are seeing epidemics of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. It’s at least in large part due to what we’re eating.

Both of my parents died of heart attacks, and my dad also had a stroke at the age of 51, a mere four years older than I am now. I want to do whatever I can to prevent myself from following in their footsteps. So I’m eating more real food, avoiding processed foods (having just given up things like deli meats and canned soups, which are full of sodium). I’ve joked that I’m becoming the Queen of Salads, but I know myself and salad all the time will become old really quickly. So I’m mixing in veggies, fruits, the white meat portion of those yummy rotisserie chickens (sans skin). I’m beginning to investigate other things to eat because I’m not a natural cook. I don’t enjoy spending time in the kitchen like some people. I really wish I did. It does help that due to diabetes, my husband tries to stick to low-carb most of the time. But I’m looking for tasty, healthy, easy recipes that don’t have a lot of salt or sugar. If anyone has any suggestions for sources or awesome Pinterest boards with these types of recipes, let me know.

I am happy to report that as of this past Saturday, I passed the 20 pounds lost mark since February. I’m about halfway to my weight-loss goal. And now only am I feeling better, but it was gratifying that people noticed, not gonna lie. It was also a wonderful feeling that while preparing to go to the RWA Conference, I didn’t experience the depressing trek to the clothing stores to buy bigger clothes. Instead, I was able to “shop” the back of my closet where I’d stowed some of my favorite conference clothes that were in a smaller size.

Also in the realm of awareness, I’m aware of the fact that I have a tendency to go all-in or cold turkey, so I’m making myself read differing views on various health topics. For instance, I had a higher than normal blood pressure reading when I went for my first visit to the hormone doc last week. Of course, being me, my anxiety shot up. At least it did until I did several things:

1. Made myself make some adjustments to what I’m eating (eschewing processed foods like deli ham and turkey as well as canned soups)

2. Read that taking too much sodium out of one’s diet (depending on one’s health condition and doctor’s recommendations) can actually cause harm, so I didn’t need to overdo it

3. Pulled out my blood pressure cuff and started taking my own readings twice a day — once in the morning and once in the evening. They were significant lower than what I got at the doctor’s office, and I read that there is something called White Coat Hypertension that makes a person’s BP elevated when it’s taken in a doctor’s office. Also, the chart included with my cuff shows that the time of day I was at the office is typically when a person’s BP is highest during the day. Other factors such as having not eaten as healthy the previous week because I was away from home, some anxiety about this initial visit, and being a bit sick with a sinus mess could have affected the number as well. I will, however, take in my cuff and have it checked for accuracy the next time I have an appointment. I’ll also exercise daily and watch what I eat with an eye to improving overall health.

So, back to that anxiety I began experiencing in February and which came to an ugly peak in early June when I had a massive panic attack while traveling alone. I knew I wanted to avoid medication for anxiety and its potential negative side effects if at all possible. I’m more of a fan of a more natural, holistic approach when that works. I’m not opposed to taking meds when I need to (I take allergy and asthma meds every day, for instance), but I don’t want that to be my first choice if there are more natural ways of fixing the issue. From my reading, I discovered that often anxiety can be a result of something physical going on in your body. I did a lot of reading about perimenopause and its symptoms. I was experiencing a lot of the things associated with that stage in a woman’s life — hot flashes, anxiety, panic attacks, fatigue, dizziness, etc. So on the advice of a friend, I ordered some lab tests that I could administer at home and send to the lab. Turns out my progesterone was super low. But I’d also read about how hormone replacement therapy can up a woman’s risk for things like breast cancer, which scares the living daylights out of me. So I read about bio-identicals and am going that route. I’m hoping after a while my symptoms will go away.

But I’m not depending solely on progesterone cream and supplements. I’m doing other things to attack my anxiety head-on. I’ve started seeing a therapist to do cognitive behavioral therapy, partly in the hope of overcoming my fear of flying and making travel long distances easier. I’m exercising and just started yoga. I am using the free Yoga with Adrienne videos on YouTube that someone suggested in the wake of my panic attacks. I’m doing deep-breathing and relaxation exercises, including during the 10 minutes before I take my own BP readings. I read a lot about anxiety and how to deal with it. Even my therapist quickly identified that I’m the type of person that if there’s a problem, I want to learn about what causes it and how to alleviate it. Now, I can’t sit here and say I’m cured of anxiety because I’m not. When I have an ache or a random pain or a dizzy spell, things that a normal person might ignore, I experience a surge of anxiety that it’s something horrible happening to me.

I suspect this fear has built inside me because of the passings of not only my parents but also my mother-in-law when she was in her 50s. She was outwardly a healthy person but was diagnosed with stage-four cancer before she knew she was even sick and passed away five months later. I think that fear of something being wrong and not knowing until it’s too late has buried itself deep in my brain. But now I’m aware that these fears are most likely not rational; yes, it can happen, but I can’t live with that constant fear hanging over me. And while it might take a bit for my awareness to filter through to the non-rational part of my brain that fears imminent demise, I’m getting a bit better at being able to say to myself, “It’s just anxiety. It’s not real. Just ride it out.” I wish I could snap my fingers and banish my anxiety forever, but that’s just not how this works.

So back to the topic of this post and the theme of the week — one simple way to improve your health today. Be aware of what your body is telling you and take the appropriate action. Oh, and stop eating processed and fast foods. Eat real, fresh food as much as you can. Your body will thank you.