Lose Your Dreams and You Will Lose Your Mind

My father often said “I don’t understand why kids your age have to ‘find’ themselves” when I was younger and toured the US in a VW bus with my best friend, stopping at Rainbow Gatherings and the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies along the way. It took me more than twenty years to finally understand why, myself.  And thus starts the beginning of my latest project, a new book that chronicles how I overcame a gynecological disorder (called adenomyosis – related to endometriosis) in which I was told my only hope was a hysterectomy. A year after my diagnosis, I reversed the symptoms, completely avoiding the hysterectomy, and doing so only via natural means. One of the biggest hurdles I had to overcome to start my healing process was chronic stress, which I didn’t even think I had. Peeling back the layers of what may actually be at the root of my chronic stress took me on the clichéd (but real) journey of self-discovery, in which I found myself all over again (or maybe for the first time, fully).

Among the greatest things that I learned was that I was always destined to be a writer. I mean, I knew that, a long time ago, but over the course of a couple of decades while pursuing a career path that wasn’t meant for me, as well as the inception of motherhood, my fate, my destiny, my childhood dream was forgotten. And you know what the Rolling Stones say in one of my all-time favorite songs (Ruby Tuesday):

“Lose your dreams and you will lose your mind.”

Well I am reclaiming my dreams in 1) the form of a creative non-fiction book — the kind of writing I always dreamed of doing — a departure from my nutrition research and scientific writing, its a personal account of how I overcame the disease by facing my stressors head on, and some of the surprising discoveries I found out about myself and my past along the way; and 2) poetry. Today I submitted four poems that I wrote recently to a poetry magazine, for the first time in my life. I’ve been writing poetry since the 5th grade. I am now almost 45. Its about time to believe in my ability to write and take the next step toward accomplishing my dreams!


PhD – not for me

So here I am. More than a year later, after pouring my soul into the pursuit of higher academic study, I’ve realized that a PhD just isn’t going to be for me. There was the big cross-country move that took place this summer and whose plans were put in motion almost a year ago. That took up way more time than I had. And we’re still not done settling into our new home.

Then there was the reality of logistics to consider, balancing time and money with being a mom and having a life. And besides, the return on investment is probably just not going to be worth it at this time in my life.  Combined with the fact that I hadn’t had luck in finding the right PhD program, I think it just wasn’t meant to be. I am somewhat saddened by this notion, but mostly for my ego. See, with a PhD behind my name, I thought maybe people would finally take what I say seriously. Maybe people would see that I am smart.  Maybe I would be invited to a table of thinkers who together work on moving things in the right direction for the greater good.

Instead, I will have to find another way to get my work out there. So I have been working on something else…. a book proposal. All that I have learned and written about over the past few years really should see the light of day, and I thought getting a PhD was the way to further my reach. But maybe it isn’t. Maybe publishing a book is the way, instead. And while I work on getting the full blown book finished and getting a literary agent and/or publisher, the more condensed version in e-book format is almost finished. I can’t wait to launch it soon. Stay tuned…

Do what makes you come alive

Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. ~ Howard Thurman

I’ve spent so much time with my nose to the grindstone on many fronts — researching and understanding my own health problems (now mostly resolved), furthering my career (by means I’m still mapping out), as well as attempting to be the best mother possible — that I’ve forgotten what makes myself come alive. That might sound cliché. But it is well known that when women become mothers, they put themselves last. And so it has been for the past… almost a decade now.

Living life. Feeling alive. Experiencing the joie de vivre has always been a deep part of my soul. Sadly, this all but disappeared when I developed severe and debilitating insomnia, food allergies, brain fogs and more, starting with the birth of my first child, and continuing on through my second pregnancy and into my second post-partum. I had a very troubled thyroid which led to chronic illness that no one could see, let alone fix. And I had to crawl out of that dark hole all by myself. Being a new mom with an infant and a toddler who both needed me constantly, did not make it easier.

But I did it. It took many years, and quite a few tears, but I brought myself back from the depths of chronic illness, fatigue and depression. And my two wonderful kids made it through unscathed. In fact, they’re thriving now.

Moving to New England has become a fresh start for me. My kids are no longer in need of “babysitting” and so now we can enjoy life together. Because we had no summer camps set up, no family vacation plans, and because I am their primary caretaker (happily so) I was “forced” to take my kids to the beach all summer. This, in turn, forced me to slow down my pace of life, and stop to think about the things that really matter to me. All work and no play, makes mommy a bore!

The  littlest of things are beginning to bring back my lust for life – spotting a pileated woodpecker on our weeping cherry tree; naming our resident rabbit “Uncle Pete;” attacking the weeds in the overgrown flower beds of our new front yard; picking out which Witch Hazel tree to plant for winter showcase; trying to catch sand crabs with the kids; discovering a bike trail through the woods just behind our house; perfecting my strokes along the perimeter of the swim area at our local beach, while watching the sun’s rays taper through the silent verdant water underneath. These are things that bring me back to present reality and fill my soul with joy once again.

In this process of renewal, I’ve learned to let go of some things (e.g. the constant tuning into social media), and bring back those things that I’ve neglected (e.g. designated time for reading books). Photography and creative writing both used to make me come alive, but somewhere along the way they fell to the bottom of the priority lists, too.

That is no longer the case. From here on out, I’ve decided that if it doesn’t make me come alive, it isn’t worth doing. And I’m not talking about doing the dishes. You can actually come alive while doing dishes, too (here’s a post I wrote on that…).  But if I’m spending endless hours on tasks that squelch my soul rather than quench it, without return on invested effort, there is no longer any point in doing it.

Instead, I’m going to go do those things that make me come alive.

Where do I fit in?


That’s the next big question. If I’m going to pursue a PhD, where would I do it? Obviously it’s got to be a program that allows a multi-disciplinary track, and one that I can pretty much design myself. It also has to be close to home, since I can’t really uproot my family in pursuit of my own higher education. Luckily, it looks like we are in for a move to New England and there are tons of great schools up there. So I’ve started inquiring about some of the programs in the area to see if I can find a good match.

And I learned right away that I better be careful about how I word my interests.

At one school, I asked about their Medical Anthropology program and told them that I was interested in “the epidemic of gluten sensitivity, food allergies, autoimmune disorders, obesity, our modern (US) food system, and implications for the paleolithic diet and paleo nutrition.” In the email response that I got back, I could feel the professor bristle as he said,

I think the Paleo diet “movement” is problematic on several grounds: 1) there was no one paleo diet, it varied over time and place, and in some places probably included wild grains; and 2) human biological evolution is continuous, although granted most of human history was spent prior to the origin of plant domestication.

He also said that it is “certainly a challenge” to have one’s research have an effect on people’s diet (even though I had asked more broadly about how my research could have an influence on our health system).

Oops. I didn’t mean to upset anyone, really. I’m not a cross-fitting, paleo pushing, fanatic. I just know there is ample anecdotal evidence of people reversing chronic diseases by eating a paleo diet, as well as scientific evidence of some of its health benefits [1][2][3]. And I am genuinely interested in this. As well as how the Inuit, Masai (and others’) diets compare to the SAD (Standard American Diet) in parallel with chronic diseases amongst these same civilizations. And why someAmerican Indian tribes are actually reverting to pre-colonial diets… When I tried to explain myself, by saying that it doesn’t really matter what we call the diet, but that there is a movement among Functional doctors to treat chronic disease with food, and that’s what I’m interested in, another professor told me that the “science just isn’t there.” But I was told to feel free to call them anyway to discuss the program more. I will wait until I can better explain my interests, without ruffling any tail feathers.

In the meantime, I tried a second school, which has as an Epidemiology department, as well as a Medical Anthropology program AND a Microbiology department. What could be better? Sounds right up my alley! But I haven’t been able to reach the ONE Anthropology professor who might be inclined to take on a student (I was told), and it’s been over a month. Guess he’s in the field somewhere. I haven’t been able to meet with the Epidemiology professor either, because she’s working on a big grant application. But the head of the microbiology lab did tell me curtly that he doesn’t have any room for the upcoming year. That is, for 2015-2016. And that kind of puts a damper on things. Would that mean I would have to waylay all classes for another year if I wanted to go to that school?

I’m not too excited about the idea of postponing school. Again. Mostly because of my age. I mean, I still feel youthful, but time moves at a faster clip once you’re in your 40s. And I don’t want to be finishing college just as my kids are thinking about starting!

In the meantime, I will continue my search…



[1] Frassetto LA, M Schloetter, M Mietus-Synder, RC Morris Jr and A Sebastian. 2009. Metabolic and physiologic improvements from consuming a paleolithic, hunter-gatherer type diet. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2009) 63, 947–955.

[2] Jönsson T, Y Granfeldt, B Ahrén1, U Branell, Gr Pålsson, A Hansson, M Söderström and S Lindeberg. 2009. Beneficial effects of a Paleolithic diet on cardiovascular risk factors in type 2 diabetes: a randomized cross-over pilot study. Cardiovascular Diabetology 2009, 8:35.

[3] Lindeberg S, Jönsson T, Granfeldt Y, Borgstrand E, Soffman J, Sjöström K, Ahrén B. 2007. A Palaeolithic diet improves glucose tolerance more than a Mediterranean-like diet in individuals with ischaemic heart disease. Diabetologia. Sep;50(9):1795-807. Epub 2007 Jun 22.

Is there a nexus where Anthropology, Epidemiology and Microbiology meet?

So what is it that I want to study, if I do go back for a PhD?

Well I’m still interested in Anthropology and more precisely, Food Anthropology. I’m interested in how food plays an integral part of daily culture and how even those foods that might be bad for us (e.g. bread!) are held with such high esteem. I’m interested in what paleolithic man ate and why he never had dental caries. If he didn’t get eaten by a saber toothed tiger, would his life expectancy have been longer?  I’m interested in Weston A. Price’s studies on native peoples whose facial structures morphed dramatically after switching from their traditional diet to today’s modern foods, overabundant in grains, sugar, and processed… crap (?) – what we affectionally call SAD (the Standard American Diet). And I’m interested in knowing how different populations have adapted to certain foods of today, such as Scandinavians being the only real ethnic group with the ability to still digest milk into adulthood. Finally, I’m interested in studying more traditional methods of preparing foods, such as fermenting fruits, vegetables and dairy, and soaking beans.

I am also interested in how our modern diet is affecting chronic disease. So I think this falls under the category of Epidemiology.  Having spent a number of years running Stuffed Pepper, I can say with certainty that Gluten Sensitivity is not just a fad diet for celiac wannabes, but in fact a real disorder that has far-reaching consequences, and which scientists are still unraveling. I want to learn more about what diseases gluten can potentially cause. Under that realm falls many (if not most?) autoimmune disorders. Obesity is of course a huge problem in the US and other countries, as well, and surely our diet has something to do with this. And what about the rise in food allergies? They are most likely because of leaky gut, caused by (among other things), gluten. But these theories need to be backed up with scientific evidence, and that is why I am most interested in the epidemiological side of things, too. We need charts and graphs to back us up, baby.

At the cross section of Epidemiology and Food Anthropology, is Medical Anthropology, at least in my mind (and on my Venn Diagram). Which could be a possible course of study for me as well.

Finally, I am interested in Microbiology and specifically microbiology of the gut. I want to know more about the effect of grains on gut health. Are just gluten grains bad? What about the other grains? I am fascinated by lectins, and especially WGA, and want to see them in action. I am also interested in the health of the gut, the diversity of flora and fauna that exist there, and the complications that arise when the gut is damaged, such as as the missing GLUT5 receptor on the intestinal border brush, that causes fructose malabsorption in its absence. How do we repair the gut, once its been injured? How do we replace the good flora and fauna, once they’ve become extinct from the gut microbiome?

Yes, I have a lot interests, and a lot of questions. But they all fit together somehow. I would love to do a combined degree where the three disciplines of Anthropology, Epidemiology and Microbiology meet. But does such a nexus exist?

To do a PhD or not?

Of course, it isn’t that simple. I’m no longer in my 20’s… er 30’s. I’m 41. Is it too late to go back for a PhD? Some people would say its never too late for anything. But on the other hand, should I really be spending my children’s college tuition money?

Of course, it depends on what I think I will get out of going back to school. Besides quenching my never-ending thirst for knowledge, will I get a return on my investment? Besides the pleasure of roaming a plush, green campus, and the smell of crisp, new notebooks (do students still use paper?), will getting a PhD give me more clout on the other side? Besides the thrill of new classes, classmates (all 20-plus years younger than me!) and professors (many of whom could be younger than me, too!), will I finally be invited as an expert, an influencer at the table of deciders?

I didn’t mention in my last post, that in addition to having two children (and doing some freelance photography work), I also started a blog. Which turned into a website. Which turned me into an expert in nutrition. Which I had never actually set out to do. Its funny where life takes you.

See, not too long after I was accepted for that PhD (that I deferred and then never went back for), I learned that I had Gluten Sensitivity. This was way back in 2001, when most people had never even heard of the word “gluten”. After my second child was born, I decided to write about my gluten-free experiences, using my blog as a way to showcase my food photography and cooking (two other passions of mine). I started looking at other gluten-free recipes out there, and wondered why there wasn’t already a community site for gluten-free people. So I started one. And I invited recipe bloggers, and experts in gluten-sensitivity and nutrition to be a part of it. And then “gluten-free” exploded on the scene.

But something kept bothering me, as I headed up this gluten-free community website. In fact, I got quite sick right around the time it launched. And remained sick for some time. And that’s a long story. But the short of it is that, I had to figure out, on my own, what was making me sick. And going gluten-free wasn’t enough to make me better. I felt wrong, heading up a website that was supposed to help other gluten-free people, when I myself couldn’t claim the gluten-free diet had helped me (yet).

I conducted research on celiac disease, gluten-sensitivity, nutrition, and more. And in the end, I became one of the experts, myself. You could say, I became a modern ethnobotanist – focussing on the culture that surrounds gluten-containing plants (or lack thereof). I learned a lot about health, public policy, and about myself. And I also learned that I LOVED to conduct research. And to write about it. Research and writing are my forte and my passion. And that is really why I want to go back to school. Not to mention, I would like to see all the work I’ve done over the past four years be put to good use. And still, I want to be invited to expert panels because I want to help influence health and health policy.

BUT do I need that PhD behind my name? How much more of an influencer will it make me? I guess that is the big question. There are many influential people out there without a PhD. Gary Taubes comes to mind. Of course his resume is impressive, but he isn’t a PhD. So what could this possibly mean for me? These are the questions I am currently grappling with.

Hi. I’m Heather.

I have an MSc in Ethnobotany, which is a hybrid degree in Anthropology (the study of human culture) and Botany (the study of plants). I have always been fascinated by the endless ways that plants are incorporated into every day life, and mostly their medicinal uses.  I read The Shaman’s Apprentice before I went for my Master’s and I dreamt of roaming jungle forests with indigenous tribal leaders, in search of native plants with untold healing properties. In fact, I wrote to the author of the book, Mark Plotkin, and told him that I wanted to come work for him after completing my studies. Amazingly, he actually wrote back (these were the days before email was so prevalent)! But he said, alas, that he was disbanding his start-up company, Shaman Pharmaceuticals, because the competition was too stiff. Score another 1 for Big Pharma.

Work for a modern Western ethnobotanist is slim-to-none.  Today’s approach, and rightly so, is to train people from their own country (whether Bhutan, Brazil or Bosnia) in botany, and in indigenous languages (if needed) so that they can be ethnobotanists of their own culture. Not for someone like me, to live out a fantasy. And that’s the way it should be.

So after my Master’s I found myself working at the National Academy of Sciences, where I oversaw the inner workings of scientific policy being put in place. I sat at the same table as representatives from Harvard, Cornell, USDA, and Monsanto. Well actually, I sat at the table behind them. Taking notes. Physically. And mentally. (Score 1/2 a point for the little guy  ).

That’s where I decided that I wanted to go on for a PhD. I wanted to be one of the influencers AT the table. So I applied for a PhD to the same school where I got my MSc, and got accepted. I was going to study the health effects of GMOs, inspired by a research paper I had done on the Green Revolution (and maybe an up close and personal experience with a Monsanto exec). But there was only one problem: I didn’t have any money. So I deferred returning to school for another year, until I could find a scholarship or some grant money.

And then life happened. My boyfriend proposed, and I said yes. A decision I never regretted, because he is the love of my life. We traveled the world, and eventually moved to the Philippines, where I volunteered my time working with local people on sustainable farming practices in hopes of regenerating lost tropical forest. While he worked with local fishers on sustainable fishing practices. After we moved back to the States, I worked at a couple of botanical gardens. And one of my dreams nearly did come true. I did get to roam the wild interior forests of Jamaica looking for indigenous and threatened plants, on a National Geographic funded expedition. They weren’t medicinal plants (as far as we know). But close enough.

Then I had a baby. And another. And the hopes of pursuing a PhD faded. But all along, I blogged about diet and nutrition, as I was dealing with health issues that no conventional doctor seemed to be able to solve. As I slowly unraveled the true science behind gluten, grains, celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, I also learned even more about the influences of Big Food, Big Pharma and Big Medicine on the health of our society as a whole. And so it turns out that maybe I am the modern ethnobotanist: not exploring the plants of the wild, but exploring how removed we have become from the wild, and how that has adversely affected our health in so many ways. Maybe I won’t be one of the big boys at the deciding table of public policy, but I still hope to be an influencer that empowers the “little guy.”