Athletes of all kinds focus on building and maintaining a healthy and productive mind-body connection. Generally, this means managing mental stress as a tool for enabling maximum physical performance. As a BMX freestyle athlete, I’ve spent years developing a mind-body connection that allows me to overcome both physical and mental obstacles. This connection allows me to push through fear and becomes adept at making quick, intuitive decisions that help me to achieve my goals both on and off the BMX course.
Several years ago, I had a transformative experience that made me realize the mind-body connection has more than one dimension, and that taking care of yourself physically is essential to having a healthy brain.
In March 2010, I was told I had a brain tumor that required immediate surgery. I was fortunate that the surgery went well and that I was back on my bike within two months of the procedure. But that wasn’t the end of it. While performing in India, I learned I had two more brain tumors. I didn’t have a choice in the diagnosis, but this time I did have a choice in treatments.
Tapping into the mind-body connection that I’ve honed over years of BMX training, I put my fear of the tumors aside and focused on identifying the best treatment option. After doing some digging on all the options out there, I decided upon radiosurgery with Gamma Knife – a non-invasive treatment that uses focused beams of radiation to destroy tumor tissue without the need for open brain surgery. The Gamma Knife procedure was incredibly simple and I was back out on my bike six days later. I’m always somewhat surprised that, when I tell my story, most people aren’t familiar with Gamma Knife. It’s an important treatment option for people with brain tumors and other neurological disorders.
My brain tumor diagnoses were a real catalyst for thinking about how I could better care for myself. I started to think about factors that impacted my brain health and were in my control and realized that food and nutrition might play an important role in helping repair the damage from the tumors and the head injuries I had suffered in the past. To be honest, up to that point in my life I had made some pretty unhealthy lifestyle choices.
Committed to finding a healthier path, I learned about the work of Dr. David Perlmutter, a top-notch neurologist, and fellow of the American College of Nutrition. He has a unique perspective on the brain and how the food we eat affects it.
Inspired by his work, I undertook a yearlong program at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. I took what I learned in the program, combined it with the knowledge I’d gained from Dr. Perlmutter’s work and applied it to my own day-to-day nutritional choices. I began eating fermented foods like sauerkraut and kombucha, got rid of the added sugars, starchy carbs and gluten, and started including more healthy fats like avocado, coconut oil, grass-fed butter and ghee, and extra virgin olive oil.
With these changes, I lowered my total carbohydrate intake by about 80 to 90 percent. I also started taking probiotics and got serious about my fitness – which became a key priority after going through an ACL reconstructive surgery. I’ve also found that getting enough sleep, being grateful for what I have and finding strength in helping others are all good for my soul and for my brain.
My mornings went from having a bowl of processed cereal loaded with sugar and conventional cow’s milk, toaster strudels, cheap pasteurized juice, soda, pastries and even more horrific foods, to starting my day with a large amount of water, a bulletproof coffee and a healthy breakfast consisting of lots of healthy fats (avocado and coconut oil), quality protein (organic, pasture-raised eggs) and low-starch veggies (broccoli, red cabbage, mushrooms and onions) with spices (black pepper, pink Himalayan sea salt, garlic and turmeric). I ditched the cheap recovery protein shakes and swapped them for Garden Of Life’s non-GMO, organic, gluten-free protein and various other supplements. I’ve also added Barleans organic and wild-caught fish oil to my meals. My lunches and dinners have the same basic components as my breakfasts, and I find that healthy fats add delicious flavors and keep me satisfied.
From adopting these healthy eating habits, I have seen great changes take place. I don’t oversleep, and I look forward to waking up and starting my day. I have significantly reduced my body fat and see even more definition in my muscles. I feel stronger and more energized throughout my whole day on and off the bike. In addition to feeling better physically, I’m able to think more clearly without the constant brain fog and forgetfulness that I experienced before adopting better eating habits. Importantly, this clarity of thought has really improved my ability to assess my emotions and be realistic about my life. Perhaps the best result of the changes I’ve made to my diet is that I know I’m doing everything I can to protect my brain’s health today and for the long term. This knowledge allows me to live in a constant sensation of gratitude, peace, love, and happiness.
[See: 10 Ways to Break a Bad Mood.]
The moral of my story is that being diagnosed with a life-threatening situation isn’t always the worst thing that can happen. In fact, any “negative” diagnosis, challenge, failure or obstacle can be a positive experience if you allow yourself to see it that way. In my case, my brain tumor diagnoses helped me see I was making lots of decisions that were taking me further and further away from the healthy lifestyle I needed to have. It took the prospect of death to make me open my mind to change. It’s now my mission to help others become aware of the changes that they can make to improve their lives, without having them go through the challenges I’ve experienced.
Strangely, my brain tumor diagnoses ended up being blessings in disguise, and I am beyond grateful for all that I have learned from them. I am proud of who I have become and the choices I am making to take care of my mind and my body, and I am honored to have the opportunity to share my story with you.
The connections between our minds and bodies are truly powerful. Take care of both, and you’ll be able to live life to the fullest.