I admit it. I was addicted to sugar, caffeine, and adrenaline. I am a recovering dopamine addict, and it almost killed me. Twenty years ago, a freshly minted doctor, I swallowed the propaganda that doctors are invincible, that "MD" stood for "medical deity." During my training, one of my surgical residents told me, "Real doctors don't do lunch." I thought I didn't need to follow the same rules of biology like everyone else. I believed sleeping, eating real food and resting were luxuries, not necessities.
In fact, even though I knew about healthy lifestyle and nutrition, and had always exercised, I felt I could push the boundaries of my body. When I started my medical career, I worked 80 to 100 hours a week as a family doctor in small town in Idaho. I delivered hundreds of babies, ran the emergency room, and saw 30 to 40 patients a day. Sleep was an afterthought. It was the early 1990s and I ordered Starbucks coffee by the case straight from Seattle, bought an espresso machine and served up four to five espressos a day. I lived in a perpetual state of fatigue and pushed my way through on adrenaline.
I continued those habits when I moved to Massachusetts and worked in an inner city emergency room. At the time I had two young children to care for, and worked endless odd shifts in three different hospitals. Some days I went without sleeping. I got through the night shifts by downing a quadruple espresso, a pint of Haagen Daz ice cream (coffee flavor) and a giant chocolate chip cookie.
I learned how to keep myself awake despite my exhaustion. I didn't have a stop button. I lived on adrenaline -- until my adrenaline ran out and I suddenly got very ill with chronic fatigue syndrome. Every system in my body broke down. I didn't choose to change my life -- my body chose for me. That is when I had to learn to rebuild my life and my energy and respect the way my body worked. I learned the hard lesson that my body was a biological organism that needed care and attention, that it wasn't there to sustain my abuse and serve my needs. I realized that if I wanted to enjoy my life, I would have to learn the care and feeding instructions needed for being a human.
Unfortunately, many suffer the same fate I did. We have all been given a beautiful creation -- our physical body. But none of us were born with an operating manual or instruction book. How do we make it feel good, take care of it, make it run like it was designed -- balanced and in perfect rhythm? Most of us don't learn how to manage our energy and bodies well. We use drugs -- sugar, caffeine, alcohol, adrenaline or worse to manage our energy and moods. Most of us don't connect our behaviors and choices with how we feel every day. We don't connect what we eat, how much we rest and sleep, how much we exercise, how much time we make for connecting with friends and community, or the kinds of media and news we watch with how we feel every day.
Feeling fully energized and vitally healthy comes down to a very simple principle: take out the bad stuff and put in the good stuff. Health results from what you get too little of (good food, nutrients, light, air, water, rest, sleep, rhythm, exercise, community, love, meaning and purpose) or too much of (poor quality food, stress, toxins, allergens or microbes). This affects how our bodies, minds and souls function. For each of us the ideal mix is a little different, and what is needed to thrive is unique to each individual. It takes a little experimentation, observation and fine-tuning to achieve, but there is nothing better than being the best you in each moment. It is what makes life sweet.
This is what I have spent the past 20 years studying -- how can I thrive and help my patients thrive; what prevents us from being well and what helps us. This approach to health and medicine is called functional medicine or "the medicine of why" -- that is, why our bodies work well or don't!
It's actually quite simple.
How to Get More Energy
Simply make a list with two columns. In one column list all the things that give you energy. In the second column list all the things that drain your energy. Each day try to let go of one thing that drains your energy and add one thing that gives you energy.
Here's my list. Take a piece of paper and make your own now.
My Energy Drains
• Not getting enough sleep (fewer than eight hours)
• Eating too much sugar
• Drinking too much coffee (more than one cup)
• Skipping meals
• Eating anything made in factory (junk and processed food)
• Eating bread
• Eating dairy
• Drinking more than three glasses of wine or alcohol a week
• Working too much
• Not exercising at least four times a week
• Not doing yoga
• Spending too much time on the computer
• Watching TV
• Not being outside in nature
• Not spending time with friends
• Getting dehydrated
My Energy Gains
• Eating a high-protein breakfast (shake or eggs)
• Eating fresh, whole real food
• Having a protein snack in the mid morning and afternoon
• Eating 10 servings of vegetables a day
• Not eating three hours before I go to sleep
• Doing yoga
• Playing tennis
• Running in the woods
• Swimming in lakes or rivers
• Hugging my kids and wife
• Talking to friends
• Dinner parties with friends
• Helping others and volunteering
• Taking my vitamins (multivitamin, fish oil, vitamin D and a few others)
• Drinking six to eight cups of filtered water a day
• Being creative in the kitchen and cooking for family and friends
• Thinking of my day as a sacred thing -- a canvass for living an artful life -- and shaping it to have good memories, good blessings and good feelings
• Learning new things about our extraordinary world and the people in it
As John Lennon said, "Life is what happens when you are making other plans." We all get kicked off our plan from time to time. Something intrudes, somebody gets sick in your life, you may lose your job, your kids may do something stupid, your spouse may cheat on you, the stock market might crash, it might even rain! These are the inevitable struggles that are part of being human.
Let me share with you how I manage these struggles (yes, they happen in mine too), and how I stay motivated.
Overcoming Obstacles on Your Path to Health
Dealing with challenges in life is like surfing. You get on the wave, and all is great ... and then the wave drops out from under you, or it grows into a huge wave and pummels you into the ground. When that happens, you paddle back out, get back up on the board and keep surfing.
Here are some ideas on how to do that:
1. Plan, plan, plan: You wouldn't take a trip to climb a mountain or take a vacation to France without planning first. It is THE most essential activity you can do to create health. Plan your day, your week, your month and your schedule in time for the things in your life that support health -- food, fun, sleep, exercise, friends or whatever else puts deposits in your health bank account.
2. Think of food first: Most of us are opportunistic eaters -- when the opportunity comes, or when we get hungry, we eat whatever's in our path. In our culture that means junk food, fast food and vending machine "food like substances." We live in a vast nutritional wasteland, a food desert. Every week, plan where you are going to get all your meals. Think ahead; don't end up in a food emergency where the only thing open is a fast food restaurant or convenience store. Think breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. It will become a habit. Plan, shop, prepare, eat. Create an emergency food pack and buy quick-to-cook meals or make whole foods at home.
3. Design fun and play into life: McDonald's was good for something -- it gave us the ditty, "You deserve a break today." Think of your day as a canvas and think of how you can paint yourself some fun. Learn new things -- try yoga or dance, or learn a new sport. I like to get my exercise by having fun and playing, not by going to the gym.
4. Prioritize sleep: We have a second national debt crisis -- sleep debt. And there is no way to trick biology and raise the debt ceiling. Get at least seven to nine hours sleep a night. Everything in you life will look and feel better and you will make better choices when you do this.
5. Avoid drugs: Almost all of us use drugs every day to manage our energy. These include sugar, caffeine, alcohol and more. Think about taking a "drug holiday" for six weeks and see how much better you feel.
6. Remember feeling well: When I get off track, I simply remember what it is like to feel great and what I have do to get there -- eat better, sleep more, exercise more or do nothing more!
Some of these habits might not be second nature. But our lives are about the thousand little choices we make every day. When I am really off track, I do a reboot -- a weeklong detox that resets my body, brain and rhythms. I use my "UltraSimple Diet." It is a simple whole foods, sugar-, drug-, and allergy-free nourishing way of eating and living for one week that can create dramatic and rapid changes in your biology. Try it. Then you may remember what it feels like to be well, some of you for the first time.
Now I'd like to hear from you ...
What steps have you taken to change your health? What obstacles do you face and how do you overcome them?
Have you tried taking a drug holiday like the one in "The UltraSimple Diet?" What were results?
Why do you think we live in a culture where the simple act of being healthy is so difficult? How can we change this unhealthy culture to one that supports optimum energy and vital well being?
Please leave your thoughts by adding a comment below.
To your good health,
Mark Hyman, M.D.
Mark Hyman, M.D. is a practicing physician, founder of The UltraWellness Center, a four-time New York Times bestselling author, and an international leader in the field of Functional Medicine. You can follow him on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn, watch his videos on YouTube, become a fan on Facebook, and subscribe to his newsletter.