A Guide to Rebuilding after a Health Crisis

Written by: the Editors of goop


Updated on: November 14, 2022


Reviewed by: Robert Zembroski, DC

A Guide to Rebuilding after a Health Crisis

Illustration courtesy of Monica Garwood

Getting over a health issue and into the clear is a time to celebrate. But it can also be a wildly confusing time; once the immediate health threat has passed, we’re often left wondering: What now? Functional physician and chiropractic neurologist Robert Zembroski has been there.

After being treated for cancer, Zembroski was ready to restore his health. But he found himself alone: “I was met with a blank stare, which left me feeling defeated and powerless over my own health,” he says. “I was unable to get the clear-cut, comprehensive guidance I needed to begin my process of rebuilding.”

After a lot of research, Zembroski came up with his own plan and eventually a book, called Rebuild, which encompasses a step-by-step customizable protocol for getting to an optimal level of health. It includes what to eat, what exercises to do, and how to eliminate toxins from your body. Although the book isn’t specific to people bouncing back from a health issue, it also covers the emotional aspects of recovery. And there’s a lot in there for people just looking to stay well. Wherever you are on your health journey, you know the drill: Pick up the book if it calls to you, and consult your doctor always.

A Q&A with Robert Zembroski, DC

What was your own experience like after your cancer treatments?

After my diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, I underwent an intensive healing journey consisting of seven months of chemotherapy, four weeks of radiation, and a major surgery to remove a mass from my chest. When I was finally cancer-free, I was excited to get my life started and regain my health. Those feelings of excitement were soon overcome with disappointment. My medical team was unable to provide any guidance or information on how I could rebuild my health or prevent a reoccurrence. When I asked what I could do, or what I should focus on, I was met with a blank stare, which left me feeling defeated and powerless. I became frustrated from hearing countless similar stories from my patients, who were also told by doctors, “You’re fine,” “We can’t find anything,” “There’s nothing you can do,” or “Let’s wait and see.”

I was unable to get the clear-cut, comprehensive guidance I needed to begin my process of rebuilding. So I set out to become my own advocate and dove into the research. I searched for professionals, experts, and books that could help me understand why I developed the disease in the first place and what I needed to do to restore my health. I wanted to create a road map with science-backed techniques to rebuild and prevent a reoccurrence. I also wanted to make sure that others could follow the plan, whether they’re suffering from a chronic condition or disease.

I was shocked to discover that many life-depleting chronic health issues and diseases may have common threads (namely inflammation) in their causes. After studying the research and healing myself with this science-based protocol, I knew that if it worked for me, it could help others as well.

When’s the best time to start the protocol, and what initial steps can one take to begin the process of rebuilding?

The best time to start is whenever you’ve made the decision to make a change. Whether you’re looking to resolve a current health issue, recover from a medical procedure, or prevent a reoccurrence, or you just don’t feel healthy or want to remain in good health, start wherever you are.

Sometimes an individual must come to terms and acknowledge that their current state of health is no longer sustainable. But whatever the reason for recovery and rebuilding, there needs to be an emotional commitment. You need emotional skin in the game or your plan isn’t as likely to be sustainable.

I suggest finding and establishing who will be a part of your support group or system. We all need support through the highs and lows. Rebuilding and restoring your health is a process, so having an accountability buddy or someone who will have your back to boost you up and keep you motivated is very helpful.

Dive into the book and digest the information. “Assessing Your Health” will help set the stage to get your head in the game and help you reach your goals. It will start by asking you honest questions that will help identify where you need to focus your energy to get you started on your journey. Create a start date.

Create your own individualized plan to get your health back. Ask yourself what your goal is and what end result you’re seeking. The research, guidelines, food plan, exercises, recipes, recommended medical tests—they’re all in there to help inform and guide you.

Can you give us an overview of your five-step plan?

Today there is an abundance of information on the “best” diets, health tips and tricks, fitness strategies, and ways to solve a list of health issues. With all that, it can be confusing and overwhelming for those searching for the “right” answer.

With this in mind, I developed the Five Re-Action Steps to take the confusion out of health, disease, nutrition, exercise, and other aspects of health restoration. They quickly helped me restore my health and, I feel, have helped me maintain good health. The Five Re-Action Steps serve to break down all the information in order to make it understandable and digestible (pun intended) for readers, to help them create their own healing plans.

To rebuild and restore health, the 5 Re-Action Steps are:

Re-Action 1: Eat for your genes.

Re-Action 2: Exercise with periods of intensity.

Re-Action 3: Hit the brakes on the stress response.

Re-Action 4: Reboot your internal clock.

Re-Action 5: Reduce contamination.

Step 1 focuses on building a healthier internal environment. What does your ideal rebuilding diet look like?

A one-size-fits-all approach is never sustainable. The Rebuild plan is designed to help readers create food plans specific to their personal metabolism, caloric needs, and current state of health.

With that in mind, there are certain foods that can drive poor health and disease in general. The big three culprits that I advise against are refined flours and grains, animal-milk products, and refined processed sugars.

The refined flours and grains that make up bread and other baked goods contain gluten, which is a protein found in certain grains. Besides celiac disease, gluten has been found to contribute to leaky gut—a condition of the intestines where spaces between cells (tight junctions) become compromised, allowing the passage of unwanted particles and proteins to pass into the bloodstream. This may set the stage for the development of other, more serious health conditions.

Animal-milk products contain a protein called casein. Once digested, casein releases a compound called BMC 7, which has been linked to a number of inflammatory conditions.

Last, refined sugars are linked to diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, polycystic ovary syndrome, and Alzheimer’s disease.

While it’s important to remember that supplements are not a replacement for eating whole foods, targeted nutritional supplements (nutraceuticals) can be effective in augmenting medical treatments, helping the body repair, and supplementing what was lost as a result of certain medical treatments. More importantly, they serve to help balance and augment a nutrient-deprived diet. A few general supplements I recommend for overall health include digestive enzymes, plant-based multivitamins, vitamin C, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil), EGCG from green tea, indole-3-carbinol from cruciferous vegetables like kale and cauliflower, and a full-spectrum probiotic to help restore the gut’s microbiome.

For those recovering from a specific condition or medical treatment or currently taking prescribed medications, I advise them to consult a health care practitioner who is well-versed in nutrition, since there may be better nutrients and supplements that would be a more optimal fit for their body.

Why do you prefer high-intensity interval training (HIIT) over other forms of exercise?

All forms of exercise, whether aerobic, cardio, HIIT, or resistance training (weight-lifting) provide benefits and are necessary for good health. But not all exercise is the same.

HIIT incorporates all-out bursts of physical activity followed by a short period of rest. It triggers a chain of genetic and metabolic events that provide a physical advantage over cardio training or moderate-intensity exercise for longer periods of time.

The full-body effort required is what also separates HIIT from other forms of activity, making it an optimal way to help rebuild the body and loose toxic fat. Data from the Journal of Applied Physiology, Physiological Reviews, and the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism demonstrated that it’s a superior method of exercising to reduce blood fats, improve fat burning, regulate blood sugar and insulin, improve the immune system, and support normal levels of hormones in the body. As an added bonus, you need only twenty to twenty-five minutes out of your day—or every other day—to unleash its benefits.

How do you help people reduce stress?

The stress reaction and release of stress hormones (norepinephrine, cortisol, and adrenaline) contribute to the development of chronic health issues and disease.

One of the most important actions you can take during a stressful time—or even after the stressor has subsided—is to change your perception of the stressor. When you change your view or perception of the stressor, you regain your power. It will no longer hold as much power over you and will help with the way in which you perceive stressful situations. This can help minimize the destructive effects that high levels of stress hormones have on the body.

A few tips to reduce stress:

    1. Focus on getting seven to eight hours of sleep: Sleep helps regulate beneficial hormones (such as growth hormones) and helps control the hormones that regulate your appetite. Without a good night’s sleep, these hormones can trick your brain into eating empty-calorie foods with no nutritional value, which is harmful when you’re already under stress.

    2. Exercise regularly: Research shows that regular exercise helps reduce stress hormones. While the amount of exercise needed differs depending on the individual, a general rule—if you’re physically well enough—would be to exercise five days a week for thirty minutes a day.

    3. Pull the weeds: Get rid of anyone or anything that brings negativity into your life. Negative thoughts and emotions are stressful and don’t serve anyone. Epigenetic research shows that we are a product of our thoughts; what we focus on affects the physical body and environment. Create positive thoughts that will build you up and add abundance to your life.

    4. Meditate and breathe: Regular meditation has powerful biological effects on the body. There is evidence illustrating how meditation can change the state of the brain and autonomic (involuntary) nervous system. Meditating can help you process your stressors, thus dialing down the release of those destructive stress hormones. If you’re not into meditating, look into guided active breathing, which is a new form of therapy that combines talk with guided breathing and relaxing music. Using breathwork, a therapist guides you through processing your emotions and thoughts.

I also tell my patients to focus on their blessings. For every negative situation in life, there is a blessing. If you can focus on the positive, you have a better chance of reducing the destructive effects stress has on the body.

Why is sleep so important in the rebuilding process? What are some of the best ways to rehab a sleep routine?

Sleep is a period of inactivity—a suspension of consciousness—that occurs every day. It’s a period of time that allows your body to go through the physical and chemical changes that are necessary for optimal health and essential to support any kind of recovery process.

When we sleep, the body responds by reducing blood pressure, body temperature, respiration, and heart rate. It also increases the release of growth hormone (GH), which activates tissue healing and regeneration. Sleep is a period in which the body is busy repairing itself, wounds are healing, and the brain is excreting metabolic waste products. All of these activities are key to maintaining optimal health and assist in the recovery process.

Unfortunately, many of us today don’t get adequate sleep. Sleep deprivation disrupts many internal functions, which sets the stage for disease and chronic illness and causes numerous behavioral and psychological changes. A lack of sleep will also greatly reduce one’s ability to rebuild from any health issue. If you don’t have a chronic condition or illness, a lack of sleep will put you at an increased risk of developing one.

To Get a Better Night’s Sleep, Consider the Following:

  • Get to bed at the same time every day.

  • Avoid stimulants, including caffeine; nicotine; and excessive alcohol intake a few hours before bedtime.

  • Avoid exercising five to six hours before your normal bedtime. Exercise raises cortisol and adrenaline levels, which disrupt your normal sleep cycle and circadian rhythm.

  • Power off your electronics a few hours before bedtime. Our phones, computers, iPads, etc., all emit blue light rays, which can disrupt the release of melatonin in the brain. The blue light stimulates the brain during the day, but when used after sundown, it can disrupt your sleep.

  • Listen to relaxing music or read for fifteen to thirty minutes before bed.

  • Sleep in a cool and dark room.

  • Avoid eating high-energy foods after dinner. They may increase your energy and make it hard to fall asleep. The goal is also to not disrupt your natural balance of growth hormones. Try to eat low- to no-carb vegetables like cucumbers, tomatoes, or bell peppers.

  • Eat protein such as turkey, chicken, eggs, and wild game. These foods are high in tryptophan, the amino acid that generates serotonin and the sleep hormone melatonin. Both are needed for a good night’s sleep.

  • Manage your environmental stressors. These can increase the release of stress hormones like cortisol, adrenalin, and norepinephrine, which will keep you awake.

How do you limit exposures to toxins?

Rebuilding from a chronic health issue or serious disease often requires you to become aware of toxins and try to find healthier alternatives, so you can make an informed choice about what you put in your body.

  • Read your food label before you eat it. Label reading is important since packaged foods often have hidden unhealthful ingredients and toxins. Steer clear of synthetic salts, processed sugars, gluten, and partially hydrogenated fats.

  • Minimize processed and packaged foods. When choosing packaged foods, look for ones that have as few ingredients as possible. A good rule of thumb is five or fewer ingredients.

  • Purchase BPA-free canned goods, e.g., the brand Garden of Eden. BPA (bisphenol A) is an endocrine disrupter that is commonly found in metal containers, cans, and plastic bottles.

  • Never use plastics in the microwave. Instead, use glass containers to store food and heat leftovers.

  • Use fruit-and-vegetable wash on your produce to wash off pesticides and wax residues.

  • Look for more natural cosmetics, skin-care products, and household products.

  • Buy wild-caught seafood over farm-raised.

  • Buy natural nut milks over animal-based milk products.

  • Consider a simple water-filtration to eliminate chlorine and excessive fluoride found in your water.

  • Add an air purifier and special filters to the air-conditioning system in your home. The filters will help eliminate pollen and other airborne irritants. If that isn’t an option, add spider plants, peace lilies, and other plants that help clean the air.

  • Minimize alcohol consumption.

  • If you can, work with your doctor and a specialist in functional medicine to rebuild your health and reduce or eliminate the use of medications.

If your body has undergone years of trying to process too much alcohol, processed foods, or an overuse of prescription medications, the liver detoxification system can become overwhelmed. An overused liver, exposure to toxic chemicals, and a nutrient-deprived body can give rise to disease.

The great news is that your body can rebuild through its powerful detoxification system. To help kick-start your liver, glutathione can be very helpful. It is one of the most important antioxidants in the body and assists our detoxification process as well as protecting our cells from free radical damage. You can find the building blocks of glutathione in supplement form or by upping your intake of cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage.

You also focus on state of mind throughout the recovery process—why?

While the Five Re-Action Steps are essential to rebuilding, through this transformation you will also transform your mind and your life. The transformation process goes through various stages, which require different states of mind. People will experience three states in their transformation from a health issue or crisis: the current state, the transition state, and the future state.

The current state is the period in which you are in the midst of dealing with chronic health issues or a disease. You come to a point of realization that your current state of health is no longer an option for you. At this point, most people are asking themselves: Now what? This is the point where you ask yourself what you want to transform. You may fear a reoccurrence and the future health issues you might face if you don’t change. Whatever the reason, you have to feel it. The driving force behind making a change must be felt on an emotional level, not just an intellectual one. It’s almost impossible to fully commit unless you have emotional skin in the game. Once you do, the steps are in motion to rebuild.

The transition state is the phase during which you have moved beyond the current state but aren’t where you want to be. You may have put some healthy changes in place and started improving your lifestyle but also hit some bumps along the way. At this point, you need support, motivation, reinforcement, measurements of progress, and celebrations of the small victories along the way. It’s important to surround yourself with nonjudgmental, supportive friends or family, who will make you laugh, give you a boost when you need it, and pump you up when you’re feeling low. Your body and health will change, so it’s important to surround yourself with people who will positively reinforce the work you’ve done and celebrate the short-term accomplishments with you along the way.

Lastly, the future state is the phase that requires you to develop a clear, motivating picture of the future you want to create. You have to create a vision that will excite you on an emotional level. Whether it’s a vision of becoming healthy and present for your family, getting off medication, or enjoying and experiencing excellent health with no reoccurrence, you must feel your future vision. Changing yourself because a family member, friend, or spouse wants you to will not be sustainable. You have to own this image and feeling in your heart and be excited about it. This is how you get yourself emotionally in the game of personal recovery.

You want patients to be more aware of their health, to be their own best advocates. How do you go about that?
  • Always have all of your health records, lab tests, imaging studies, and any health reports when seeing a health care provider.

  • Listen to your body. Don’t underestimate the diagnostic power of what your body is telling you.

  • When sitting with your doctor(s), make sure your concerns and questions are answered and you are heard.

  • Have a working understanding of what is faulty with your health, and be more involved in the diagnosis and prescription—whatever that prescription may be.

  • More thoroughly question the treatment recommendations, even if only medications.

  • If you decide to take medications, make sure you ask questions regarding side effects; proper dosage; toxicity; alternative, less toxic drugs; and possible alternatives to all pharmaceuticals.

  • Fire the person who says your health issues are due to “bad luck”; look for a practitioner who will help you get to the roots of your health problem.

  • Ask: “If I were to make specific enhancements to rebuild from a health issue, what do I need to do to resolve the underlying causes?”

  • Have a checklist of what you want and expect at the end of your doctor’s visit. What is it that you want and need before walking out the door?

  • It is best to build a team with all health care providers working together to help understand what’s happening with your health and to get the issues resolved.

Robert Zembroski, DC, DACNB, MS, is a physician, a specialist in functional medicine, and a board-certified chiropractic neurologist. He is currently the director of the Darien Center for Functional Medicine in Connecticut. Zembroski is also a clinical nutritionist and has over twenty-four years of experience in rebuilding people from chronic health issues and disease back to their optimal health.

This article is for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.