03/05/2013 11:40 am ET Updated May 05, 2013

Dr. Jim Nicolai Interview: Why Integrative Wellness Rules

Like most of us, I would call myself busy. As in, very busy. And, like most of us, I've often found myself struggling to balance my work, my personal life, and bodily health with varying degrees of success.

Dr. Jim Nicolai gets it. An integrative wellness specialist at Miraval, Nicolai frequently gives lectures to guests about healthy living (many of which I've attended). His new book, Integrative Wellness Rules: A Simple Guide to Healthy Living, was a read I knew would be valuable, particularly for those who intuitively know what "health and wellness" means but struggle with practical application in their everyday, busy lives.

In our conversation, we discussed what integrative wellness is, how it can transform both doctors and patients, and ways those living in Western society can use Eastern practices to become healthier.

Laura Cococcia: You practice "integrative wellness." Can you say a few words on what this means and how it differs from traditional health care?

Dr. Jim Nicolai: Health and wellness are intertwined. I define health not as just "the absence of disease" but as wholeness, balance, and resilience. Wellness is the feeling you have when you are moving toward health or you in fact are there. Where health is the destination, wellness is the journey. But wellness is more than just a feeling; it's a series of action strategies and tools that help you move closer to health. As an integrative physician and health coach, I help people develop those tools.

Integrative medicine is healing-oriented vs. disease-oriented. It focuses on people as more than physical bodies, but as mental, emotional, spiritual, social, even energetic beings. Where disease can occur from imbalances in these areas, my job is to help navigate people through the choices of using both conventional medicine and the best of the alternative practices to move them closer to health.

LC: As our work, personal, and spiritual/intellectual lives become more entangled in the modern world -- we rarely unplug from our smartphones, after all -- does conventional wisdom about how to care for our whole selves need to change? If so, how?

JN: Absolutely! I often say that the pace of our lives has grown exponentially. I truly believe that as a culture and population we are all doing more per-unit time than anyone else has ever done. This causes us to constantly be in "to do" mode as opposed to "being" mode. One of the jobs of integrative medicine is to urge individuals to value practices that help them become more mindful and emotionally intelligent. I often challenge people to develop such practices by turning off and tuning in.

LC: Your new book, Integrative Wellness Rules: A Simple Guide to Healthy Living, is aimed at those of us who find ourselves busy almost all the time. How does your book differ from the other wellness books on the market?

JN: My biggest "a-ha!" moment was discovering that knowing information doesn't necessarily translate to doing it. As I was trying to keep healthy, I discovered that the best practices were usually what I called "quick and dirty" instead of complex and difficult to manage. They were simple, not necessarily easy, but doable and effective and maybe even fun when I could incorporate them into my daily life instead of them being yet another thing I had to do. The book is my collection of all these quick and dirty tools to improve health on all levels.

LC: What are some of the most ways you actually see patients working against themselves to accomplish their wellness goals?

JN: I think the biggest challenge is overwhelm. I see it here at Miraval when guests get paralyzed with too many choices. My suggestion is to simplify and deepen the extraordinary by choosing no more than three things to work on and do just a bit better than ordinary in a consistent fashion. When you feel like you can do something you actually do it. It builds momentum hopefully until it becomes a part of who you are and what you do every day. Extraordinary is just a wee bit more than ordinary.

LC: In your work as a doctor and wellness specialist, have you come across wisdom from other cultures, either regionally or globally, that we in the states would be wise to employ?

JN: I think the wisdom of traditions of India and Asia teach me about the importance of mindfulness; of quieting the mind -- what I call "monkey brain" - and being free of judgment. Having a practice that does this regularly improves so many aspects of health. I also think the Asian idea of using herbal therapies, tonics, and other techniques to help with the body's defenses, what we call immunity, is so much more powerful than our Western view of attacking foreign invaders through disease medications. When we become stronger and more resilient, we can withstand the attack of foreign pressures regardless of what they might be, bacteria, viruses, allergens, toxins in the air and water, carcinogens. This, to me, is health.

For more on Laura Cococcia, click here.

For more on integrative medicine, click here.