The year I turned 27 was a very difficult year. I began experiencing a cascade of symptoms that felt innocuous at first— a little bit of numbness here, a little bit of itching there —but gradually progressed to something much more serious. I would go on to lose 20% of my body weight, become so weak I had trouble carrying my little dog around, and even have difficulty walking a couple blocks. For someone who taught yoga on the side and ran half marathons regularly, this was alarming.
It would take doctors almost a year to diagnose me with what turned out to be Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Frustrated by what I perceived to be a lack of urgency and help from the medical community, I fell back on my own research skills to alleviate symptoms and ultimately find the answer that caused me to direct my primary care physician to send me to an oncologist. During this time, I devoured many books on health and nutrition and sifted through numerous articles in academic medical journals. As a result of what I learned, I made several permanent changes to my life to eliminate unnecessary toxins in my home and fuel my body in a way that was more nourishing.
- Swapped dryer sheets for wool dryer balls with a few drops of essential oils, usually a mixture of lavender and tea tree oils. I did this for several reasons. First, from an environmental perspective, I loved the idea of reducing the waste generated by doing a load of laundry. The dryer balls are reusable and made from natural materials (wool). I have been using the same three dryer balls I started with over a year ago since they can be washed themselves. Making this switch also means reducing the number of indoor air pollutants in my home. I no longer get a wave of chemically created scents when I open the door to my laundry closet. Instead I’m met with a calming mixture of plant-derived scents that immediately relaxes me. Scientific studies have found that products with synthetic fragrance can generate toxic, hazardous, and carcinogenic compounds when released into the air. This is not unique to the fragrance within dryer sheets and extends to any product with the word “fragrance” or “parfum” in the ingredients, although manufacturers are somehow not required to even disclose the inclusion of such ingredients in their products (YAY AMERICA!). This leads me to my next few changes.
- Swapped candles for this essential oil diffuser. Imagine my heartbreak when I understood that basically anything with a fragrance emitted these hazardous chemicals that I wanted to avoid. I reluctantly gave up my candle addiction, which, honestly, was a lot more painless than I thought it would be because I ended up loving my diffuser so much. Candles are ridiculously expensive, usually not scented by plant-derived oils alone, and always result in an empty container that is usually thrown away/generates waste. I’ve saved a ton of money since quitting candles, and whenever I’m in a store, tempted by a delicious smelling candle, I make a mental list of scents it purports to have and just drop a mixture of those into my diffuser when I get home. An example of this was a bougie-smelling candle I sniffed at a local boutique with notes of geranium, bergamot, lavender, and cedar. I dropped a mixture of those oils into my diffuser and boom! My house smelled wonderful. Friends are always asking me why my house smells so amazing when they first walk in and that is definitely my secret. For example, I love the combination of cedar and pine oils around the holidays for a freshly-cut Christmas tree scent.
- Incorporated oils in other ways into my cleaning routine as well as cutting the use of commercial cleaning products. In addition to using oils for laundry and diffusing, I’ve incorporated them into my cleaning routine as well. Try a few drops in the liquid you use to wash your floors (I drop a couple into my floor steamer — which, by the way has eliminated my need for floor cleaner since it only uses water) or scatter a few drops on carpet and rugs before you vacuum. I even drop it on pillows and mattresses before I put clean sheets on my bed for some help relaxing when I crawl in. My favorite oils to this end are ylang-ylang, lavender, and bergamot. I also stopped using commercial cleaner for wiping surfaces and instead just use dish soap and water (my fav is the lavender kind from Trader Joe’s — although I’m sure it’s not perfect from a toxicity standpoint). I do still use commercial products for cleaning mirrors and toilets but am curious about others what other less toxic alternatives may exist. This brings me to another point — keep in mind that I implemented all these changes gradually. I didn’t just throw out all the other stuff I was using but slowly started replacing (or not replacing) items once I found better alternatives or that I did not actually need the items at all.
- Detoxified my personal care routine. I greatly reduced the number of personal care products I use and nixed anything with synthetic scents.
- Hair. Having shaved my head when clumps of hair started falling out during my treatment in 2016, I am super nice to my hair to make sure it is growing as nicely and quickly as it possibly can. This means I look for shampoos without synthetic fragrances and sulfates (skin irritants that are also quite harsh on the hair — and hence avoided by people who color or otherwise treat their hair) and I wash it much less frequently than I once did. I aim to wash it 1-2x a week. Sustaining this routine sometimes means a rinse followed by only conditioner or a sprinkle of dry shampoo scented with essential oils in the middle of the week. My favorite is Shea Moisture in peace rose. I am also a fan of this brand for shampoo and conditioner. It doesn’t hurt that they invest 10% of their profits in women-led businesses and the communities that supply their ingredients. Ideally, I’d do a hair mask of coconut oil with some essential oils mixed in once a week, but there are stretches of time where I do this and stretches of time where I don’t, if I’m being honest. Mostly this is due to time constraints, but I do find that it helps make my hair soft and shiny when I’m good about it.
- Skin. I wash with Dr. Bronner’s, love scrubs once in a while with natural ingredients, such as the lavender tea tree scrub from Trader Joe’s or the rose petal scrub from California-based small batch maker Moon Body Soul. I should moisturize more than I do, but when I do, I look for something fair-trade and scented with only essential oils. As for commercial deodorant, I gave that up in law school because it actually irritated my skin so much. One of my brothers had the same issue. I currently alternate between The Healthy Deodorant and Piper Wai.
- Room for improvement. I definitely have room for improvement. I haven’t made much effort toward detoxing my makeup or nail polish. Ideally I’d also like to buy clothes made of only natural materials like wool or cotton, especially after reading pieces like this one on the adverse affects synthetic fabrics have on the environment and our collective health.
- Began to start most mornings with a smoothie. My smoothie template usually involves greens, antioxidant berries, healthy fats (avocado or coconut milk), plant protein (this hemp protein is my current fav), and water. I came up with this template after reading a number of helpful books about nutrition written by physicians and based on scientific studies such as The Wahl’s Protocol and Anti-Cancer. Sometimes I’ll mix it up and nix the berries and greens for a pineapple/mango (high in Vitamin C — great for when I’m feeling like I’m about to get sick) or cacao/dark cherry combo. Often, I’ll add collagen powder (everything comes back to growing out my hair, doesn’t it?) as well. I’ll make a large batch of smoothies in my blender on a Sunday night and pour them into 12-oz. mason jars to grab and go throughout the week. It’s such a great start to the day and comforting to know that within my first few hours of being awake, I’ve already given my body a number of fruit and veggie servings, clean protein, good fats with numerous nutritional benefits.
- Greatly reduced my intake of added sugar, simple carbs, dairy, and red meat and incorporated more nourishing foods into my regular rotation. It always feels like I have a lot of work to do in this department, but luckily I like my coffee and teas without sugar. A bout of the Whole30 diet helped me understand that bread and rice generally don’t add that much to my enjoyment of a meal and that eggs with a side of veggie, avocado, or both or oven-baked wild salmon with a side of fresh veg are simple, satisfying, and healthful meals to have on rotation throughout the week. I always have eggs and avocado in the fridge as well as salmon filets and frozen veggies in the freezer so that even if I’ve been traveling or super I can come home and have a healthy dinner on the spot with very little forethought, prep time, clean up, or effort. Buying a box of greens every week to use in the aforementioned smoothies as well as salads has served me well. I try not to have unnecessary snacks, desserts, or dairy products such as cheese in the fridge — these are things I will binge eat 100%, so I simply try to refrain from buying. I never buy red meat and on the rare occasion I do eat it, my preference is grass-fed and naturally raised. This is why. Summary: grass-fed tends to have a better nutritional profile and less adverse health effects than corn-fed as a result. This is why I also look for pasture-raised eggs at the grocery store (grass-fed rather than corn-fed).
- Surrounded myself with plants to detox the air in my home. Houseplants may help improve indoor air quality and combat the release of VOCs released into the air by the materials and chemicals used to create and clean our homes. They also help improve the general vibe of your home (yes I found a scientific study on that, if you can agree that mood-boosting and stress-reducing leads to an improvement of vibe). I also get so many compliments on my plant babies when my friends come over, which of course is also scientific proof that they contribute to a good vibe. My collection includes a rubber plant, split-leaf philodendron, fiddle leaf fig, yucca tree, zanzibar gem, cactus, jade, aloe, orchids, and mother-in-law’s tongue.
A lot of these changes have improved my quality of life because I actually like them better than what I was doing before, and in addition to saving me money today, are the ultimate investment in my personal health and the health of the planet. Getting really sick challenged me to be more critical about what I choose to consume and made me realize on a deeper level that everything I do has an impact on my personal health and the environment. This post just scratches the surface of all the things getting sick and reading up on why we get sick and what we can do to reduce our chances of getting sick has taught me. I know I’ve implemented a lot of good changes but I’m curious about what others do in this regard, because I know I still have a long way to go. Share your good habits in the comments!