I was given a copy of The Whole Health Life by the author, Shannon Harvey because she and her husband felt that it aligned with the info that I share here on my blog. I couldn’t agree more. After they told me about the book I really couldn’t wait to read it, and as I started reading it I couldn’t wait to share it. Actually, I didn’t wait. It inspired two posts before I was even finished with the first two chapters on mindfulness and how our beliefs affect our health.
Shannon covers a range of topics in the book but she examines each topic with the eye of a journalist (because that’s what she is). After becoming sick with what was diagnosed as everything from Lupus to Fibromyalgia and (like many of us) reaching a point where she was ready to throw her hands up and just give up, she decided to start looking for answers the way that she’s looked at everything, through research. She began diving into research on chronic illness and found several common topics as she sifted through the various science-based research. As she examined things deeper she decided to take her journalistic background and her husband’s film background and create a documentary on what she found. That documentary is called The Connection. It’s about an hour long and very much worth the watch. However, if you are like me you will walk away from it wanting to know so much more, that can be found in her book, The Whole Health Life.
Shannon begins the book with her story, which she shares in such a way that you are drawn in and you feel a real kinship with her. You know that she has shared the same struggles you have and because of that you can trust that she wants to help you. While so many health books are written for those with illness by those who are healthy and have never experienced our illness, that is not the case with The Whole Health Life. She guides that you not try to do everything covered in the book at once, it would overwhelm you and she’s right. Instead, she suggests that you pick one thing and focus on it for at least a month until you feel comfortable with it before you move onto something else.
Because several of the topics in the book are things I’ve already spent a lot of time on and because the first topic was something that I’ve been interested in for a while, I really wanted to start off this year giving some serious effort towards mindfulness-based stress relief.
The chapter on Stress explains the connection between stress and illness, discussing the science that has shown a link between high levels of stress and immune dysfunction and increased cellular aging. She discusses how not all stress is bad, but that too often our stress response gets kicked on by a million little stresses a day and never turns off. Thus, we need to learn how to control our stress response and harness it for the good. Small things like hugging can reduce stress hormones. However, our perception also plays an important role. If we can perceive stresses as challenges instead of something bad we respond differently.
Shannon covers the history of research into meditation and how it affects the brain and the body. This research goes back to the 1960’s, but really became accepted in the 1980’s, when Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction showed that meditation, when combined with modern medicine, could help psoriasis heal faster. His research has since been extended into just about every area of chronic illness. When I read about his 8-week program, I knew I wanted to take it. In a moment of syncronicity a friend sent me the link to a local class that had recently started here teaching the program (one of only a few hundred in the country). I instantly signed up beginning what I hope will be my year of Mindfulness.
Emotions are the next topic covered in The Whole Health Life. The connection between emotions and health, and how negative emotions can flare our chronic illnesses seems, in many ways, obvious. Yet, there are subtleties that Shannon points out, like how when we are feeling more negative emotions we tend to not take care of ourselves as well, we are more likely to eat unhealthily. We feel less than so we drive ourselves harder than we should to be more. Unfortunately, many doctors don’t make this connection. They’ve separated the emotions from the body as if the various aspects of a person do not make up the whole.
The research here (as in other areas) is very interesting. One bit of research in particular showed that women with more negative emotional styles tend to have lower levels of Natural Killer (NK) cells (an important component of a working immune system), while those with a more positive emotional style tended to have 50% more NK cells.
Even when someone is severely ill if they have a more positive outlook they are going to report that they feel better and have fewer symptoms. It’s not to say that the positive emotions make you feel better, it may just be that they are linked in the other way, or it may be simply that people who are more focused on the positive are less focused on their illness and symptoms. Whatever the direction of the connection, one does exist. On the other hand negative emotions also serve a purpose by making us more vigilant about our health. Unfortunately, those negative emotions can often go too far falling over the line into depression.
The chapter on Belief was another one that instantly inspired a post. The chapter surprised me because I really expected it to head into a discussion about religious beliefs, but it did not. Instead it focused on a few other areas of belief. One, as discussed in my earlier post, was that those who believe they can feel better are more likely to do so. If you believe a medicine will help you, or if you believe that a doctor has your best interest in heart you are more likely to improve. The chapter discusses in depth the placebo effect and how it actually works in two ways. Not only can we get better simply because we believe that something will help, but we can also feel worse just based on the belief that something may make us feel worse.
A book on the Whole Health Life would not be complete without a chapter on Food. This, of course, is an area that I’ve spent the last 5 years focused on. Even so, the science is still interesting and this chapter served as an excellent reminder to me about those little areas where I tend to allow myself to get lax. Nutrition accounts for so many health problems. The most interesting thing was the science behind the mind-gut connection and how the gut contains its own nervous system. The research on the vagus nerve really caught my attention as this is something that has come up previously in research on Fibromyalgia.
Exercise (or movement) is about so much more than weight. Research has found that exercise can actually reverse the loss of hippocampal volume associated with aging. It actually helps create new brain cells and nurtures the growth of existing ones. Movement also decreases inflammation, and increases blood flow throughout the body and the brain. This increases oxygen levels, feeding the tissues, and improving memory. After covering the science behind exercise and chronic illness, she goes on to share some great steps that you can take to begin making movement a part of your healing journey.
Is your environment making you sick(er)? Our environment can actually affect our genetic make-up. Everything from where live, what we eat, the people we spend time with, and any other life circumstance can influence our health. It’s easy to blame our illness on bad genes (especially when we know there is a genetic component to the illness) but that’s not the end of the story, we can still affect our environment in such a way as to reverse or at least control the illness. Some of the science in this chapter explained to me why I’m much happier at the beach or in the woods than in a city (or even in my house).
We can affect our environment even in our homes by adding scent, allowing more natural light, reducing electronic noise, and even just spending 15 minutes of our day outside in the sun. We can design our environment.
Sleep is a huge issue for me and I’m hoping that the focus on meditation will help. If not, it will be the area that I focus on next in an effort to sleep better. In this chapter, Shannon shares the Myth of Wakefulness – this idea that in order to keep up with our competition we have to sleep less and do more. When the reality is that we focus better when we have enough sleep. Sleep is needed so that our brains can process what we learn during the day, as well as to heal the body. She discusses common sleep disruptors and what we can do to improve sleep.
The healthcare system has changed a great deal in the last 50 years or so. We’ve gone from seeing a single doctor who looked at us a whole being to seeing specialists for every little thing; specialists who ignore all but their tiny focus. However, the system is beginning to swing back again towards looking at the patient as a whole rather than in parts. This chapter discusses how the healthcare system is changing. It matters just as much that a doctor show that they care about our overall well-being as any treatment that they may prescribe. Empathy and communication are key in the physician-patient relationship leading to a greater impact on the patient’s overall health.
Friendships and relationships as a whole play a huge role in our health. Those of us with support systems tend to have better health results.
This chapter brings us back to the title of Harvey’s documentary – The Connection. It’s all about connections in the end – the connection between the mind and the body, and the connection between each and every one of us. Without connections we die.
The Whole Health Life is, in my opinion, a Must Read. This will go on my shelf next to The Patient Playbook as one of those books I will recommend to everyone. Not just those who are chronically ill but anyone who is interested in health. The book is full of so much great science-based information. And, for every study she mentions you can go and delve deeper. At the end of each chapter is a summary of Key Takeaways from that chapter, followed by information on how you can delve deeper into that topics covered – books suggested, interviews to watch, etc. and often even steps to take to act on the information you are given.
Shannon Harvey doesn’t just hand you a bunch of science and say “here’s some info now figure out how to act on it.”. Nor, does she provide the science in a dry fashion. The book is entirely engaging in both the sense of making you want to read it and in the sense of making you want to engage with the information and act on it once you’ve read. The Whole Health Life isn’t just a book on the mind-body connection, it’s an instruction manual on how to make that connection work.