How to create a sweet self-care routine

A reader emailed me this question: I want to take better care of myself, but I’m having trouble committing. Any tips for creating a good routine?

Here was my reply.  Thanks for sparking a good column topic!

Intention is key. That’s the best place to start. You said “routine,” which may sound less-than-exciting; but, honestly, excitement is overrated. In fact, our bodies respond very well to routine at all stages of life. And we feel so much better, and act more considerately, when applying consistent self-care. The basics include making healthier dietary choices, getting enough sleep, being well-hydrated (with mostly water), moving every day, and practicing forgiveness. There are so many triggers that can throw you off balance. Some you can control (such as how much sugar you put into your mouth) and some you cannot (such as, let’s be honest, other people). Keeping your emotions on an even keel goes a long way toward maintaining composure and equilibrium. You’re less likely to get bent out of shape, if you maintain your own inner calm, deep breathing, and intent for harmony. Take breaks from your screens and devices. It can be incredibly healthy to set aside one day a week for traditional fasting (water only) and one day a week (maybe the same day) for “screen fasting.”

Managing stress is also critical.  You can’t completely turn off stress, of course. It’s actually an inherent part of human survival, creativity, and productivity.  Stress motivates us to get things done, to take on difficult projects, or try to reach physical goals.  Stress isn’t the enemy, but if you can’t take it in stride, it will wear away at your energy and self-confidence. Unmitigated stress has been shown to exacerbate (or even cause) obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative diseases, headaches, digestive problems, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and OCD behaviors. To maintain balance through self-care, you need to find effective ways to manage stress. Lifestyle choices are key to staying even, focused, and calm throughout the day. Pick a mindfulness practice that appeals to you—that makes sense to — and explore. This could be a daily yoga stretch, contemplative (not judgmental) journaling, or a breath practice that helps you slow down and focus for at least 10 minutes.

Finding balance in whatever way you take this to mean. There’s no one-size-fits-all healthy eating plan, but in general, we could all benefit from bending our diets more towards the keto and vegetarian ends of the scale. That might seem like a contradiction, but it really can be done. One of the reasons the U.S. was so hard-hit by Covid-19 is sadly due to the prevalence of preventable “co-morbidities” such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.  Catastrophic environmental disturbances are one of many relatively new, and crushing, stressors that can throw us off balance, along with the constant bickering in the news and on social media. I strongly recommend a prolonged easy exhale is the basis of a calming breath pattern. Some people like the “3-4-8” pattern in which you breathe in deeply to a count of 3, then hold your breath in gently for 4 counts, then exhale slowly over 8 counts. This exercise can be especially effective if you find a comfortable seat (cross-legged on a small cushion is great) and put your hands on your knees, keeping the arms extended. Prolonging the exhale is associated with activating the parasympathetic (opposite of the fight or flight) nervous system. Prolonged exhales can significantly and quickly lower blood pressure, heart rate, and pain perception. Deep breathing has the potential to improve cognition, reduce stress, enhance attention span, and even improve sleep quality (by reducing cortisol levels). And speaking of sleep, life today is often overstimulating, so do your best to avoid additional stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. Sorry to say, there really are no health reasons to indulge in any of these substances. You’ll read articles about caffeine helping you concentrate, but getting good sleep helps with concentration too. There’s information out there about how wine is neuro- and cardio-protective—but that’s not the alcohol! It’s the resveratrol in the grape skins. Better to get that from non-alcoholic supplements.

Regular physical whole-body movement is the cheapest method to reduce stress and control anxiety according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (2020 study). Find what feels good—yoga or dance or swimming or rebounding or spinning or hiking or aerobics or tennis or pickleball or volleyball—and plug one into your schedule every day. I recommend sketching out your next day as part of a bedtime routine. Make a note in your calendar about your food plan, your movement plan (exactly what time of the day you will set aside for joyful physical activity), your meditation/yoga time (morning is ideal), and what time you plan to get to bed in order to get 8 hours of sleep.

I will mention five anti-stress supplements which may be effective in helping your quest to be a calmer, kinder person. My top 5 include:

One: Vitamin C, which boosts the immune system during cold, flu and virus season.  Vitamin C is the foundational nutrient for tissue repair, including collagen synthesis, which makes it critical for brain, heart, and skin health, as well as immune support. We do not produce our own vitamin C (ascorbic acid) internally—we must get it from foods or supplements. Most cheap vitamin C is made from corn, but I prefer C sourced from tapioca. The ideal supplement is liposomal, from sunflower phosphatidylcholine, because this fat-soluble form will deliver C through the cells to the mitochondria.

Two: B complex, particularly if you are vegan or vegetarian. B vitamins in general are nerve and brain nutrients, and many studies have elucidated the benefits of Bs for mood, stress, anxiety, depression, and even serious conditions such as schizophrenia. Look for a B complex that contains methylated versions of B12 (methylcobalamin), folate (methylfolate), and the P-5-P type of B6 . Some folks experience a “niacin flush” with vitamin B3 , but this is actually great for opening up circulation in the smaller capillaries and improving tissue oxygenation.

Three: Magnesium, especially for women who tend to lose magnesium during their menses. Magnesium is a muscle relaxant that also acts directly on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis by down-regulating stress responses, so it reduces anxiety as well as muscle cramps (including menstrual cramps). Generally about 300 mg of magnesium at bedtime helps improve deep sleep, but up to 750 mg may be required. Too much magnesium will cause a loose stool, so work up slowly to find your optimal dose.

Four: Turmeric is an all-around marvelous anti-inflammatory spice. Try buying it in bulk, from an organic source. When you cook soups or stews, put a lot of turmeric in the pot—about ¼ cup in a 4-quart stock pot. You can improve the absorption with a few twists of freshly ground black pepper, then simmer with onions and olive oil on low heat before adding veggies, beans, and stock. You can also enjoy turmeric in delicious, blenderized “Golden Milks” with chai, black or green tea, warming spices such as cinnamon or cardamom, and veggie milks with some added fat such as ghee or MCT oil.

Five: GABA at bedtime combines well with melatonin and magnesium to help turn off a chattering mind. This naturally occurring, relaxing, neurotransmitter can help counteract the multiple shocks of adrenaline and jangling surges of dopamine we all experience. GABA also has known antiseizure and antianxiety effects. A dose of 100–150 mg per day is generally sufficient. While GABA is considered safe for all ages, there are possible (though unsubstantiated) side effects of lowered blood pressure and appetite suppression. So if you have very low blood pressure or suffer from low appetite, proceed with caution.

In a nutshell: The fundamentals of selfcare are good food choices, making every bite worthwhile, moving your body with joy, getting enough sleep, finding meaning in your work, and nurturing a daily contemplative practice.