Twenty years ago, as 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 all about nutrition and living a healthy lifestyle and had always exercised, I felt I could push the boundaries of my body. When I started my medical career, I worked 80-100 hours a week as a family doctor in a small town in Idaho. I delivered hundreds of babies, ran the emergency room, and saw 30-40 patients a day. Sleep was an afterthought. I ordered Starbucks coffee by the case straight from Seattle, bought an espresso machine and served up 4-5 espressos a day. I lived in a perpetual state of fatigue and pushed my way through on adrenalin.
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 didn’t have a stop button. I lived on adrenalin — until my adrenalin 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’s when I had to learn to rebuild my life and my energy. I learned the hard lesson that my body is a biological organism that needs care and attention, and that if I wanted to enjoy my life, I would have to learn the care and feeding instructions needed for being a human.
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 run like it was designed — balanced and in perfect rhythm? Most of us don’t learn how to do it well. We use drugs — sugar, caffeine, alcohol, adrenalin or worse — to manage our energy and moods. We don’t connect what we eat, how much we sleep, how often 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 healthy comes down to a very simple principle: Take out the bad stuff (poor-quality food, stress, toxins, allergens or microbes) and add in the good stuff (good food, nutrients, light, air, water, rest, sleep, rhythm, exercise, community, love, meaning and purpose). This is what I have spent the last 20 years studying — how to thrive and how to 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. And it’s actually quite simple.
How to Get More Energy
Want more energy? First, you have to figure out what makes your energy levels soar. To do this, 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 (less than 8 hours)
- Eating too much sugar
- Drinking too much coffee (more than 1 cup)
- Skipping meals
- Eating anything made in a factory (junk and processed food)
- Eating bread
- Eating dairy
- Drinking more than 3 glasses of wine or alcohol a week
- Working too much
- Not exercising at least 4 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
- Getting plenty of sleep
- Eating a high-protein breakfast (shake or eggs)
- Eating fresh, whole foods
- Having a protein snack in the mid morning and afternoon
- Eating 10 servings of vegetables a day
- Not eating 3 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
- Helping others and volunteering
- Taking my vitamins and supplements (multivitamin, fish oil, vitamin D and a few others)
- Drinking 6-8 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 canvas for living an artful life
- 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 by the inevitable struggles that are part of being human. Let me share with you how I manage these struggles 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, everything 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, 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 schedule in time for the things in your life that support health — food, sleep, exercise, time with friends or whatever else increases the balance 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. To combat this, make a weekly plan for where you are going to get all your meals. Plan breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks; don’t end up in a food emergency where the only thing open is a fast-food restaurant or convenience store.
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 7-9 hours of sleep a night. Everything in your life will look and feel better and you will make better choices.
5. Avoid drugs: Almost all of us use drugs every day to artificially 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’s 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 week-long detox that resets my body, brain and rhythms. I use my UltraSimple Diet. It is a simple sugar-, drug- and allergy-free 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.
To your good health,
Mark Hyman, MD