The world is inflamed, and so are we. Maybe the two are connected, and maybe healing our own bodies can help heal the world.
I took a stress questionnaire online recently and scored a whopping 120 out of 200 points: significantly stressed, according to the scale. Adding to that, having my gut sense of stress confirmed by a credible stress research tool made me a tad more stressed. As I continued down the stress rabbit hole, I came across some statistics from the American Psychological Association documenting that being stressed is a nationwide and even international epidemic. The top five causes of stress: future of our nation (63 percent), money (62 percent), work (61 percent), political climate (57 percent), and violence/crime (51 percent).
Physically, we might experience all this stress as fatigue, headaches, upset stomach, muscle tension, change in appetite, emotional eating, insomnia, teeth grinding, lack of libido. Psychologically, there is a ripple effect as well, namely irritability, anger, impatience, nervousness, anxiety—feeling on the brink of crumbling from just trying to keep it all together. In my stressed state, I couldn’t even think of people who are not in that predicament, with the numerous responsibilities that we carry, whether it’s providing for children, working high-demand jobs, having multiple jobs, being plagued with financial insecurity, or being continually exposed to social and political pressures. We can also map the spread of stress with the world’s obesity epidemic, which adds more strain—and ultimately pain—to every motion.
We also know that the heat of stress burns within us as inflammation. We know that many chronic diseases have inflammatory processes as their foundation, whether it’s cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or even Alzheimer’s disease. And then it struck me: It’s as though we are experiencing internal climate change: the spread of dry, cracked skin, burning hearts, raging guts, and so much volatility, pain, and even anger.
Following the ancient adage of “as within, so without; as above, so below,” which suggests that we as individuals are the microcosm of the larger macrocosm, I started to look for parallels: perhaps our Earth is under the duress of climate inflammation in part because her people are increasingly inflamed. Maybe if we understand both as a part of the same problem, we can help solve both.
This is not a new idea—not at all. What is telling is that the truth of the “burn within,” or the dance of flickering flames of fire, is recognized in ancient traditions such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda. Within TCM, there is discussion of heat as it is felt in the quickening of the pulse or the redness of the tongue. In Ayurveda, there is recognition of the pitta dosha, which corresponds to heat, metabolism, and fire, particularly as it relates to digestion. In allopathic/functional medicine, inflammation is expressed as the increased production of cytokines like interleukin-6, resulting in oxidative stress and immune system dysfunction. What all three healing systems have in common is recognition of the basic properties of inflammation: calor (heat), dolor (pain), rubor (redness), and tumor (swelling). But here’s a difference: In both of those ancient healing systems, the thought that personal heat could be connected to the heat of one’s community or the planet itself is not radical. In modern allopathic medicine, it still is.
But maybe not for long. Major health advances, from genetics to social biology to the discovery of the microbiome, illuminate our myriad connections to one another, to other living creatures, and to our soil, air, and water. Following that line of thought, it would seem that the more each of us can change our relationship with the fire element within ourselves, we can quite possibly create a cool ripple effect of healing change throughout the planet.
So how do we transition into a healthy relationship with the heat that burns within? How do we take that spark and create empowerment, confidence, and power rather than letting it make us crisp, burnt out, and fried? That is the question for the times we’re living in. First, I think it’s worthwhile to note how balanced and imbalanced fire show up in your life. Look at the lists below to see how you might stack up.
Assess Your Fire Element
A person with a balanced fire element
- Has a robust digestive tract
- Has normal blood sugar level
- Feels inspired rather than overwhelmed by her daily tasks
- Does her best without having to be perfect or the “best” at everything
- Has a healthy appetite
- Honors her body rhythms of balance through eating, sleeping, and taking breaks
- Balances work with play
A person with an imbalanced fire element
- Has indigestion, burping, or stomach upset that feels like burning
- Has intolerances or allergies to food
- Relies on caffeine and sugar to stay stoked
- Could have an accumulation of belly fat, suggesting chronic high cortisol/stress
- Tends to be excessively busy
- Might be a perfectionist
- Reacts quickly, gets irritated with what isn’t going her way
- Feels hot or flushed
- Eats on the run to keep up with her busy schedule
- Is a classic workaholic
- Has an insatiable drive to move forward, achieve, and accomplish
If you feel like your fire within might be raging, it might be a good idea to start to cool off with diet. Food choices are within your control—and food is our most direct connection between our inner and outer world. Think of it this way: Choosing to buy foods grown on organic “regenerative” farms not only helps to prevent climate inflammation, because the farming practices help sequester carbon from the atmosphere, the organic vegetables also provide your body the most reliable buffer against inner inflammation. Shifting your food choices will immediately help both to cool the planet and to cool your body. You may also tend to eat less because you’ll get the most nutrients from what you do eat. You will feel better and look better, and you’ll likely save money on both food and healthcare as you do your bit to protect the Earth.
At the other extreme is a diet of highly processed food from factories and feedlots. The factories and feedlots not only contribute directly to climate inflammation, the foods they produce lead to chronic poor digestion, which leads to being overfed and undernourished— hungry despite an excess of food. When we add stress to that—from overworking and underplaying or from eating fast food on the run—it further upsets the community of microbes residing inside us. We lose power in our core, and we become vulnerable to burnout and feeling uninspired, unmotivated, and exhausted, unable to function. All these feelings set the stage for expensive, inflammation-based disorders such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, and basically any “-itis” condition (arthritis, dermatitis, etc.).
Climate change is both upon us and within us. We are overheating the planet as we burn inside with the inflammation of to-do lists that never get done and the accumulating burden of expectations of what we want for ourselves versus what we can do. That said, there is a benefit to the burn of fire when it is appropriately harnessed. Fire is a force of transformation. If we can direct the “fire in the belly” through our eating and living in simpler ways, it can create a blaze of brilliant power, self-esteem, and the ability to burn bright in all we do—as we do our bit to cool the Earth.
6 Anti-inflammatory Lifestyle Tips
1. Supportive social networks improve our thinking and behaviors. Our networks influence the foods we eat, the thoughts we think, and the beliefs and values we live by. Surround yourself with anti-inflammatory people who are nourishing to you and who may challenge your fire in healthy rather than unhealthy ways.
2. Feeling frazzled psychologically indicates an inflamed physiology. Decades of mind-body research shows there is no separation between feelings and body. We know that intellectually. The problem is that we are not in touch with our emotions. When I ask people how they feel, there is a typical, canned response that they are “doing fine,” yet I can sense a volcano about to blow. The best thing to do is to write in an Emotion Log each night a list of all the emotions you felt through the day. An Emotion Log helps keep us connected to what we feel and how our body responds to those feelings, so that we can act accordingly. Research shows that people who suppress emotions, as well as those who volatilely express them, have an increased risk for heart disease.
3. To curb inflammation, read your thoughts like a food label. Most people who are stressed feel overwhelmed with the classic “monkey mind” of competing, bombarding thoughts that tend to be
critical, judgmental, and disempowering. The simple activity of setting a timer for three minutes and writing down all your thoughts as they come to you will allow you a window into what could be either causing or dampening the heat of stress.
4. In the heat of a stress, movement is the first thing to go. Sitting is inflammatory. Some people say it is the “new smoking.” For myself, I like to do movement that brings my inner fire joy. I want to be stoked by the activity rather than have it be another thing on my to-do list. That usually means I’m walking outside in nature instead of being in a sweaty gym. Studies on forest bathing show that we can reduce blood pressure and overall stress response just by being in nature for a couple of hours.
5. Ease your burden with a six-minute energy inventory. Fold a piece of paper down the middle. Then set a timer for three minutes. On one half of the paper, use those three minutes to list all the elements of your life that give you energy: It can be anything from certain people to events, activities, or even wearing a certain outfit. For the next three minutes, use the other half of the paper to write all the aspects of your life that take your energy: What burns you out? What inflames you? Just let it out on the paper. Then compare your lists. How can you let go of some things that take your energy and bring in more things that give you energy? Adding up these lists gives you what I call the Life Inflammation Index. Count the number of GIVES and TAKES. If you have more TAKES than GIVES, chances are good that you have inflammation in your everyday life.
6. Release yourself from “doing.” Let your body reset through pauses, small naps, and luxurious sleep without the interference of technology, responsibilities, and tasks. The more you can have some unstructured time to create without the sense of needing to finalize or complete a project, the more you will be able to sink into your parasympathetic nervous system, which rejuvenates and heals you from being on overdrive through your sympathetic nervous system activity. Give yourself the gift of simply listening or dancing to music, painting with bright colors on a big pad of paper, or even indulging in an adult coloring book. Don’t overthink it. Go with the flow of your inner child to replenish that burnt-out adult you have become.
7 Ways to Cool Your Diet
1. Avoid high-heat cooking and frying. That brown color acquired by frying, roasting, and grilling is inflammatory to the body. Slow and moist cooking methods or steaming are less inflammatory.
2. Avoid high-glycemic-index foods. Quick-burn, high-crash foods include fruit juices with added sugar; high-sugar desserts like cakes, cookies, donuts, ice cream, and candy; processed breakfast cereals (warm and cold); starchy snack foods like crackers, potato chips, and tortilla chips; starchy vegetables like corn and white potatoes; processed grain products like bagels, muffins, and sliced bread; and white rice. Instead, aim for low-glycemic, sustainable carbohydrates like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes that slowly release their energy into the bloodstream.
3. Avoid poor-quality fats. Industrially produced trans fats are still found in processed products like potato chips (definitely an inflammatory food!), baked goods (for when we are looking for sweetness in life because we’ve been working too hard and need a reward), and other sweet/salty on-the-run treats. These fats are not naturally occurring and can wreak havoc on our cardiovascular system. 4. Avoid the brown-yellow-white diet. I often talk about “eating the rainbow,” not just because it gives us more joy and brings us back to the art of eating, but because each color has what I would call a code. Eating red foods like tomatoes (unless you have a sensitivity to nightshades) and strawberries (unless you are avoiding histamines) is particularly helpful with reducing inflammation in the body. Similarly, getting orange, yellow, green, blue-purple, white, and tan foods is essential for their unique antioxidants that offset the heat of inflammation.
5. Avoid highly allergenic foods (e.g., wheat, soy, eggs). I’ve noticed that people who have inflammation tend to feel it at their gut as indigestion or bloating, in their brain as brain fog or being moody, and through their skin in the form of a rash, hives, or eczema. If we eat a food that our body doesn’t jibe with, it can create a blaze of inflammation through the gut, brain, or skin—and sometimes all three. Or having inflammation in those body organs can lead to the inability to transform the energy of foods adequately because of the underlying inflammation that is distorting function. One of the best things to do if you have inflammation is to clear the heat by doing an elimination diet, which means removing the main high-allergen foods from your diet so that there is less reaction every time you eat. I talk about a way to do this diet in my book, Whole Detox. (And I make it fun, too!)
6. Avoid toxins (e.g., plasticizers, phthalates, parabens, pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, heavy metals). It’s remarkable that we can be doing all the right things when it comes to eating, but we may be overlooking an obvious inflammatory culprit—toxins. Toxins like plasticizers, insecticides, and heavy metals, such as mercury, can distort our hormones and cause outright inflammation through their disruptive effects on enzymes and physiology. Do what you can to choose organically grown food and minimize the use of plastics, even as containers for your food and water.
7. Avoid becoming fixated on food. No diet is perfect, and no one makes great decisions all the time. Research tells us that minds full of pessimistic thoughts often coincide with inflammation, which is why an approach that combines food and lifestyle changes is going to be most effective in cooling your jets.