by Dr. Ben Kim – drbenkim.com
After badly dislocating my left shoulder while playing basketball during my first year of university, I began experimenting with a variety of strength-training techniques for my shoulders. Over the course of several years, I tried numerous routines that called for dozens of exercises with free weights and machines.
While I benefited from each program that I tried, I eventually realized that some exercises were more powerful than others in their overall effect on my physical strength. For example, I found that doing just a few sets of full body weight pull-ups was far more effective at strengthening my shoulder rotator cuff muscles than doing a dozen or more sets of dumbbell exercises that aimed to work just one rotator cuff at a time.
This was an important lesson for me – the idea that with any objective in life, when a willingness to experiment is combined with mindful observation of one’s progress, it’s possible to discover ways to most efficiently experience desired results.
When it comes to recovering from any chronic health challenge, there are a number of steps that you can take to align your daily choices with healing. But some steps can produce a greater positive effect on your health than others. What follows are seven action steps that I believe can most efficiently help you heal from any chronic health challenge and keep you healthy over the long term:
1. Reduce or eliminate intake of harmful foods.
In my experience, foods that must be avoided when looking to recover from a health challenge are:
- Pasteurized dairy products – includes milk, cream, all types of cheese, ice cream, and baked goods that contain pasteurized dairy.
- Deep fried foods – includes French fries, potato chips, fried chicken, tempura, donuts, and frozen foods that were originally made by deep-frying.
- All products that contain hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils.
- Highly processed luncheon meats and sausage.
- Artificial food additives, especially MSG and aspartame.
- Products that contain protein isolates – found mainly in protein powder products and soy-based vegan products.
Foods that should be eaten sparingly, if at all, include:
- Sugar – includes baked goods, packaged foods, and drinks that are rich in sugar, like most commercially available breakfast cereals, fruit drinks, and pop.
- Large portions (more than 3 ounces per day) of factory farmed beef, chicken, and pork.
- Non-fish seafood – includes crab, lobster, shrimp, mussels, clams, and oysters.
How to mark your progress: At the end of each day, take note of how many times you ate one of the foods listed above. The goal is to start by avoiding all of these foods for one day during the week, and then to increase this to two days the following week, and to continue with this gradual progression of “clean” days of eating until you consistently reach six days of clean eating per week.
2. Strive to eat nutrient-rich foods that agree with your body.
For every morsel of food that you ingest, you want to maximize the number of health-promoting nutrients that you provide to your cells; your body’s self-healing and self-preserving mechanisms are best supported by a regular supply of undamaged amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, and other plant-based compounds.
Here is a sample one-day menu of a nutrient-rich and health-promoting diet:
Breakfast: Smoothie made by blending 1-2 bananas, 1 cup blueberries, 1 cup strawberries, 1-2 cups of unsweetened nut or organic soy milk, and any food-based powder supplements that are available to you. (We add 1 tablespoon of greens and 2 teaspoons of acerola cherry powder to our morning smoothies.)
Lunch: Salad consisting of any type of leafy green lettuce, avocado, and a healthy salad dressing. Hummus sandwich made by spreading a generous dollop of creamy hummus on gluten-free bread, and adding some slices of sweet red onion and ripe tomatoes.
Dinner: Plate of assorted steamed vegetables like broccoli, sweet potatoes, zucchini, asparagus, and green beans with a tahini dressing. Omelette made with organic eggs and chives, cooked over low to medium heat with a tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil.
Snacks: Raw pecans, goji berries, ripe fruits like mangoes and melons.
Clearly, there are endless varieties of nutrient-rich foods that you can mix and match to create health-supporting meals. The guiding principle to follow is to eat mainly fresh, plant-based foods, and to consider eating small portions of one or more high quality animal foods that your body is able to digest without difficulty.
How to mark your progress: As described in the previous section, aim to eat only nutrient-rich meals at least one day a week to begin with. At a pace that you are comfortable with, aim to get to a point where you are eating only nutrient-rich meals six days a week. When you get to six days of healthy eating per week on a consistent basis, if you don’t have any health challenges, feel free to enjoy a meal or two that may not be super healthy one day per week. Allowing one “cheat” day per week if your health can handle it may be good for your overall health for a variety of reasons, such as enjoying relationships with people who are important to you but who aren’t as mindful of healthy eating.
3. Chew well.
Over the years, I’ve worked with a number of people who followed a nutrient-rich diet but had significant issues with their digestive tracts. A good percentage of these people experienced dramatic improvement by adopting the habit of chewing their foods to near liquid.
Simply put, chewing well is essential for healing because it increases the availability of nutrients in the foods that you eat to your cells. If you don’t chew well, it’s quite possible that many of the nutrients in the foods that you eat are going through your digestive tract without getting into your bloodstream to nourish your cells.
In cases where thorough chewing is not possible due to dental issues, I encourage regular use of a blender or food processor to ensure optimal access to the nutrients in the foods that you eat.
How to mark your progress: Take note of how comfortable your body – particularly your abdomen – feels after your meals. Thorough chewing tends to promote comfortable digestion with minimal or no gas production. Also take note of how long it takes you to eat your meals. If you’re able to eat an entire hummus sandwich and a green salad in five minutes, you can safely assume that you’re not chewing well.
4. Get as much physical rest as your life circumstances allow.
The single most important experience in my personal health journey thus far was a 2-week water fast that I experienced in the late 90′s, which was directly followed up by a 3-week period of eating nothing but fresh fruits, vegetables, their juices, and a few grain dishes like quinoa and brown rice.
Spending a total of five weeks focusing on giving my body as much physical rest as possible allowed my damaged and exhausted organs to recover and learn how to function optimally again.
Regular physical rest promotes healthy endocrine function, including the release of optimal amounts of health-promoting hormones like growth hormone, testosterone, and erythropoietin – these hormones are essential requirements for your body to heal damaged organs.
Your body is always doing its best to restore your health with whatever energy and resources are available to it. The more rest you get, the more your body is able to heal damaged areas – it really is this simple.
While doing a water fast in a peaceful environment is an ideal way to experience rejuvenating physical rest, just arranging your lifestyle to allow for restful sleep each night can make an enormous difference to your healing potential.
How to mark your progress: You can know that you are getting adequate physical rest if don’t consistently feel tired. If you get more sleep but still feel tired, continue prioritizing physical rest, as your body may need to catch up on many hours of sleep debt that you have accrued over time.
5. Don’t forget about getting sufficient emotional rest.
If you’re getting plenty of physical rest but experiencing significant emotional distress on a regular basis, you are still using up precious energy and resources that could otherwise be used to support healing.
Emotional distress equals greater activity within your sympathetic nervous system, as well as greater output of stress-related hormones like cortisol. And higher-than-necessary sympathetic ouput along with a high level of cortisol in your blood can make it near impossible to recover from chronic health challenges. In fact, these conditions are likely to worsen existing health challenges, and even create new ones.
Getting adequate emotional rest can be more difficult than getting sufficient physical rest because it can sometimes require that you find ways to transcend deeply-rooted emotional scars and issues. Getting over an abusive relationship or any other emotionally traumatic experience may be one of the most difficult challenges that you face during your lifetime.
How to mark your progress: Take some time each evening before you go to bed to sit or lie quietly while you take note of how peaceful or anxious you feel. It’s fine to feel anxious about new and exciting experiences; what you don’t want is to experience chronic anxiety. The goal is to get to a point where you feel peaceful and balanced more often than not.
6. Discover and pursue personally meaningful purposes.
I have long believed that it’s difficult for most people to stay motivated to make healthy dietary and lifestyle choices without something to look forward to each day.
If you don’t currently have interests or responsibilities that drive you to take good care of your health, I encourage you to spend time thinking about moments when you felt deeply appreciated by another person. Whatever you did to have someone appreciate you can be a good starting point when looking to discover and pursue a meaningful life purpose.
How to mark your progress: Take note of how you feel when you wake up each morning. Do you feel excited about the day ahead? If not, spend more time thinking about personally meaningful pursuits, particularly those that involve helping others help themselves.
7. Support your bones, muscles, and ligaments with regular physical activity, acupressure, stretching, and foam rolling.
If your daily responsibilities don’t require regular physical activity, I encourage you to find a form of physical activity that you truly enjoy and that causes you to perspire to some degree. Strive to make time for this activity at least a couple of times per week. Doing so will provide essential stimulation to your entire body to stay healthy, but particularly to your bones, muscles, ligaments, heart, blood vessels, and lungs.
How to mark your progress: In striving to be physically active and using tools like acupressure, stretching, and foam rolling, the goal is to feel light, strong, and flexible, like you can work all day hauling bricks, or jog or run several miles if an emergency called for it. Take note of how physically free and capable you feel on a daily basis and modify or maintain your efforts accordingly.
Beyond the seven action steps described above, avoiding recreational drugs and getting regular exposure to sunlight (without getting burned) and fresh air are additional measures that can facilitate optimal healing.
The main idea that I hope has come across is that by being mindful of your daily choices, you can facilitate efficient healing. The action steps listed above are ones that I strive to take every day to maintain my health. They’re also the recommendations that I think anyone with a chronic health challenge should consider following before resorting to conventional medical treatments that involve drugs or surgery.
If you’re relatively new to the idea that there’s no better way to support health recovery than to consistently make healthy food and lifestyle choices, please feel free to spend some time reading the articles that are referenced throughout this one. And if you’re currently working to overcome a chronic health challenge, I hope that this article helps to inspire and fuel your recovery.