Illustration by Giacomo Bagnara from HOW TO BE WELL by Frank Lipman, M.D. Copyright © 2018 by Frank Lipman, MD. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
A Simple Map to Total Wellness
If there’s one major (and very welcome) takeaway from Dr. Frank Lipman’s new book How to Be Well: The 6 Keys to a Happy and Healthy Life, it is this: We can chill out. In our oversaturated health landscape, every new discovery, recommendation, test, and product can seem like valid reason to uproot our lives and dive down the wellness rabbit hole. At first glance, Lipman’s handbook is a guide to solving the problem of too much guidance. But he goes deeper. It also proposes a path to developing healthy, individualized habits that work for everyone. The functional physician and longtime goop contributor finds that wellness is mostly intuitive (major diagnoses notwithstanding), and he isn’t one for strict doctrines or overhauling your lifestyle overnight.
In Lipman’s system of well-being, which he calls the Good Medicine Mandala, there are six pillars of long-lasting health. Maximizing each aspect of your health comes down to small changes (small, but not necessarily easy) that add up exponentially. If you’re at all stuck or just feeling less than your best, what Lipman outlines in How to Be Well is remarkably inspiring.
A Q&A with Frank Lipman, M.D.
How do you individualize health?
There are over a hundred tips in How to Be Well that are universal by design, but the way you use them is personalized. You can navigate through the tips in different ways depending on your personality and your preference for change—deep and focused, or gradual and gentle.
“After years of practice, I’ve realized there is no one ‘right’ way to be well.”
The goal is to gain greater awareness of yourself on every level: what makes you tick and what makes you sick, what your passion and purpose are, what you want to express in your lifetime, and what makes you most fulfilled. That is why the center of the mandala—or the bull’s-eye, if you prefer—is YOU. When you wake up to the awareness of who and what you are, you can discover the confidence to live your way, the courage to make choices that serve you best, and the compassion to be kind to yourself along the way—a compassion that inevitably ripples outward to others.
After years of practice, I’ve realized there is no one “right” way to be well. Doctors can offer their best assessment of the diet, the routine, the lifestyle, and the mind-set they think will help you, but you interpret the information and express it in a way that is unique to you. Ultimately there is only your way.
Take us through your top tips for each aspect of well-being.
1. On eating well—without overthinking it in the kitchen:
The more home-cooked meals you eat, the better, because you have total control over the ingredients. Don’t fear cooking. If you barely cook, start with a goal of one or two homemade dinners a week. Stick to basic meals at first (grilled protein plus sides, puréed soups using vegetables you have on hand). Keep quality EVOO, salt, garlic, lemon, and a few spices in stock and a recipe-free, vegetable-heavy dinner can be made in twenty minutes. Listen to music while you cook, cook with your kids—make it fun. I also recommend cooking extra at dinner and using the leftovers for lunch the next day.
2. On the ideal sleep—and upping energy throughout the day:
When you understand that we are a microcosm of the macrocosm—the earth, held in place by a larger rhythm of light and day—you realize you can have more energy by respecting these rhythms. Going to bed at the same time each night, ideally around 10 p.m. and before 11 p.m. and getting up at the same time each morning (seven to eight hours later) helps. Also try to avoid social jet lag if you can. That happens when you throw off your rhythms by staying up extra late on the weekends and then forcing yourself to revert to early rising on Monday morning. The more you can stay on rhythm all week, the easier it will be to catch and ride your natural sleep wave each night.
It’s important to get natural sunlight during the day, so go for a brief walk in daylight first thing in the morning if you can. Your internal clock is especially sensitive to the energizing effects of light in the first two hours after waking. If you can’t get outside, consider sitting for thirty to ninety minutes a day in front of full-spectrum lights, which are used to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and other circadian-related mood and sleep disorders. Put one on your desk and let it bathe you in light as you work.
3. On movement—and remedies for normally sedentary activities, like a desk job:
Use a large exercise ball, sized to allow you to keep your thighs parallel to floor with flat feet. This will help you to engage your core, keep your circulation going, and enliven your nervous system because you have to make constant micro movements to maintain your posture. And get up and move around every couple of hours.
4. On protecting yourself from toxins—one small step at a time:
Educate yourself about the toxins out there, in particular the endocrine-disrupting chemicals in our food, cosmetics, and furnishings, which can wreak havoc on hormone function. Focus on the small, proactive things you can do on a daily basis instead of worrying about it—like avoiding GMO foods (look for the non-GMO verified label or organic produce), switching to cleaner cosmetics, and getting a water filter. Another resource I recommend is the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.
5. On winding down when we feel overwhelmed:
The quickest and easiest practice you can do when you feel overwhelmed is bring your attention to your breath. There is a clear link between your emotional state and your breath, and you can use your breath to regulate your emotions. Deliberately breathing deeply, in and out, in a slow and steady fashion, reduces heart rate and activates the calming part of the nervous system. Meditation is a great way to calm an overactive mind when you’re replaying events or feeling anxious about what’s to come.
6. On building meaningful connections with others and the planet at large:
In South Africa, where I’m from, the philosophy of Ubuntu is a foundational pillar of life. “Ubuntu” means “what makes us human is the humanity we show each other.” In the US, we don’t have a single phrase that captures the same thing, but the word “seva,” which comes from yogic philosophy and means “selfless service for the good of the collective,” alludes to the concept. When you give your time, energy, and effort to a cause from a place of genuine altruism—giving for the pure sake of service to another—you experience an increased sense of belonging and connection, a greater experience of “shared humanity” that can be hard to find in today’s polarized culture. You also get to be part of a solution in a world that can seem filled with paralyzing problems. So for starters, I recommend volunteering with an organization that has meaning to you. Also, feelings of contentment are more likely to come from places and experiences, rather than from objects: Spend your extra cash on doing and being—and put a little less into having.
“As the nature writer Edward Abbey said, ‘Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.'”
Acknowledging the seasons is a great way to connect to the planet at large, as is spending intentional time in nature. Doing this will restore something of your original human condition: a calm body with an optimized immune system, and a brain in a state of restful awareness, alert to surroundings but unencumbered by constant thought. As the nature writer Edward Abbey said, “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.”
As an M.D. and a functional medicine practitioner, Dr. Frank Lipman integrates both Western medicine and Eastern traditions into a patient-focused practice, typically including nutrition counseling, stress management, and noninvasive procedures, like acupuncture, to support overall health. He believes that health is not only the absence of disease but a state of physical, mental, social, emotional, and spiritual well-being that extends to our social and natural environments. In addition to How to Be Well: The 6 Keys to a Happy and Healthy Life, Dr. Lipman is the author of several other books: The New Health Rules, Revive, 10 Reasons You Feel Old and Get Fat, and Total Renewal.
The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of goop, and they are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article 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.