Your gut is not Las Vegas. What happens in the gut does not stay in the gut — There are many action steps to reduce your toxic load that I encourage everyone to do. I remember a client, Mary, who was seemingly doing everything right. She was trying to eat healthy. She exercised regularly. She was working on getting better sleep. You would think she had her healthy lifestyle covered. But what she did not consider was the environmental toxins that her body was exposed to on a daily basis. She was missing out on a key piece of her healthy living plan. Some environmental toxins are naturally occurring, such as lead or arsenic found in soil. However, most environmental toxins are man-made chemicals that are in products we use every day, from plastics and furniture, to cleaning sprays and personal care products, to food and food packaging, and everything in between.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kerry Harling.
Kerry, a native of England, is a globally recognized leader in the field of integrative medicine combining the wisdom of eastern medicine with the breakthroughs of western technology. She is passionate about raising awareness for the need for a change in contemporary medicine that focuses on the ethos that health is NOT one size fits all and as such each of us is unique, and as such requires individualized treatment. Kerry practices at The University of Pittsburgh Center for Integrative Medicine and remains a pioneer in the field of integrative medicine where she has developed a personalized system to manage chronic disorders by incorporating fundamental changes in diet, behavior, and stress while focusing on genetics.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
Let me introduce myself. The journey I have taken over the past twenty-five years will give you a sense of what I do and how I have built my programs.
I am not a traditional Western doctor — I am an integrative health practitioner, and I do things differently in my office. I was born in England. My early years were typical of a young European girl growing up. My mother dabbled in herbs, and alternative health so, in a sense, I was destined to become a teacher and healer.
My journey has been a remarkable one. I spent most of my life unhealthy and chronically fatigued. This always surprises people when I tell them, considering my profession, but I spent years being diagnosed with a myriad of diseases, including fibromyalgia, depression, Lyme disease, anxiety, and chronic fatigue. I was taking medication for all of them.
I would go to the doctor and be prescribed the latest drug for my latest symptoms. No one tried to understand the underlying cause of my health problems. Life was stressful enough without constantly being ill and exhausted. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired, and I was desperate. It was at this point in my life I turned to a complementary medical practitioner. I was diagnosed with mercury toxicity. Finally, I knew the cause of all my problems! I could at last be healthy once and for all!
Not so fast!
Five years of treatment left me mercury free, but I was still lacking the energy and vitality I once had.
It was at this time; I was introduced to Ayurveda, which treats each person as unique and looks to the root cause of any illness. I learned how to add the valuable nutrients that I was missing. And, just one month later, I found my vitality and energy improving. It was amazing.
I was absolutely astounded by the power of this simple but effective method of health, that I made a major life change. I decided to study Ayurveda so I could help others discover the incredible way this avenue of health can improve lives — like it did mine. After years of research and study, I was able to combine my knowledge of interacting with vastly different health communities through my global travels and volunteering with international health organizations. I have integrated what I have seen and experienced into a unique set of skills rooted in my science training in neuroscience, and education as well as my research and studies in Ayurveda.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Yes, let me tell you about Anna. Anna was larger than life, one of those people with a great laugh and presence– she lit up a room when she walked in.
I remember looking at an exit sign in the room I was in … and thinking, I wish I could leave this room, because if I could leave this room, I would not have to face the awful reality that Anna was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. I listened to the physician tell Anna that there was no hope — to essentially put her affairs in order. There were no clinical trials indicated, chemotherapy was not an option, nor was radiation therapy.
I thought back over Anna’s life — and realized there had been signs and symptoms that something was wrong. I remember the time her legs swelled up and she was sent to an endocrinologist. I also remember the time she had digestive problems and she was sent to a gastroenterologist. Then there was the time she put on a lot of weight and was sent to a nutritionist. And, lastly, when she got depressed and anxious regarding all her symptoms, she was sent to a psychiatrist and put on anti-anxiety medication.
Now each one of these specialists gave her the best care they could, and each specialist wanted to help by utilizing the best tools in their toolbox. But, had there been someone like me — someone who could have connected all the dots, maybe, just maybe I would be telling you a different story about my mother, Anna today! It is more important to balance the systems of the body than just give a pill for the ill. My mother’s death taught me there had to be a different way — and that started my own inquiry into looking at alternative ways of healing.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The Holistic Highway is unique in that it does not just treat symptoms, rather it’s a team of trained professionals focused on in-depth diagnostics — including genetic testing — to identify imbalances unique to each person. This information is then used to offer the highest level of personalized wellness-based medicine available.
By leaving no stone unturned in discovering each person’s genetic predispositions, and current biological imbalances — we are able to resolve all their stressors no matter where they originated.
We start with food as medicine. Food and herbal formulations have always been at the heart of my practice. Through my formal studies, I learned that food was as equally important in the healing process as the medicine itself.
Living in our western culture, it did not take me long to see the far-reaching effects that the Western diet was having on many people, which I see as lacking in many nutrients. My Ayurveda training has taught me ‘food is medicine’, but I was not seeing medicinal meals anywhere. This motivated me to find ways to nourish my patients by providing them with simple but effective meals that were easy to digest and contained the nourishment their body needed. I also taught my patients that anything we take in through the five senses is nourishment.
I counsel an enormous array of people from all walks of life, many of whom have exhausted traditional Western medicine’s approach to treating certain diseases, or who just want to ‘feel better’, as they deal with a long bout of vague, undiagnosed symptoms. Some of my clients hope to reduce their risk of future illness and disease, while at the same time learn new strategies for coping with stress, tension and worry.
I am very upfront with my patients from the moment I meet them. I clearly ask what their objectives are, and I probe deeply into their lifestyle and dietary habits like few other traditional doctors do during consultations. In addition to routine questions about their medical history, medications, supplements, and chief concerns, I ask about their spiritual practices, work, sex life, levels of stress, ability to make decisions, quality of sleep, and vulnerability to things like jealousy, envy, rage and over-attachment. I even go so far as to inquire about which tastes they prefer, what time of day they eat their meals, how they plan their days, and whether there are stressors in their close relationships.
Over the past several decades, I have treated thousands of patients and I have also collaborated with prominent physicians to design treatment protocols and formulate new health and wellness programs and products.
To be clear, Ayurveda is not a substitute for traditional Western medicine. My practice honors the curative powers of herbs, spices and foods, but I also have a deep respect for how Western doctors practice, and I work side by side with them every day. But what I do that many conventional doctors do not, is look at the root cause and then develop a personalized wellness plan that is unique to that person — because there is no one size fits all. There is no one drug, no one supplement, diet or type of exercise that is right for all people. This highly personalized approach to health is what sets me apart.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There have been a number of people that have helped shape me to the person I am today and been instrumental in my life. First my mother whom I mentioned died of pancreatic cancer. She was unique in that she loved everyone and embodied true acceptance of all people. She was as happy having lunch with a Saudi prince — which she did one time — as she was sitting on a street corner talking to a homeless man. She taught me that no matter our circumstances, we are all human and deserving of respect. I also must talk about my son — he is also my business partner and even though it is challenging working with family, he has constantly pushed me to be the very best in my business and is instrumental in believing we should build an Ayurveda company based upon integrity, science and a genuine desire to guide people onto the road of health. And there is my sister — she is also my best friend and she has been my biggest cheerleader and has stood by me during every struggle and all my successes. She embodies true friendship and family. And lastly, my husband has been my rock and gently encouraged me to keep on going even during those sleepless nights when I thought everything would fail. He is truly my 3 am person!
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
Resilience is the ability to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions. Or in other words, it is the ability to bounce back after a stressor. However, in the context of biological resilience it is the ability to adapt successfully to stress, trauma, and adversity without getting ill. However, why is it that some people recover less efficiently following the same adverse health risk compared to others?
A crucial novel perspective, which has emerged in recent years, is that resilient people have active adaptive mechanisms. These adaptive mechanisms make them more able to adapt to an adverse event so that it does not cause disease.
One of those mechanisms in your genes. You can have a genetic risk for a condition and you might never get it, and you might have no genetic risk profile and end up having a poor health outcome because of your lifestyle, because of stress, or possible changes in parts of the gene that regulate other parts. This is known as epigenetics; in that you can change how your genes respond based upon diet and lifestyle. In this case even though a person may carry a predisposition for a health risk, if they have managed their diet and lifestyle well, the gene will not express. They counterbalanced the genetic predisposition with the right environment.
Another might be immune resilience. The University of Texas Health Center has just done a study that looks at immunologic resilience with relation to Covid 19 to see which Covid 19 patients will advance to severe disease, and which will not. They looked at infection fighting T-cells and blood cell gene expression signatures as markers of immune resilience and found that an 18-year-old could have inferior immunologic resilience, resulting in a high risk of severe COVID-19, whereas an 80-year-old with robust resilience could manifest less severe COVID-19.
There are other markers of biological resilience: For instance, the speed and quality of DNA repair would characterize the resilience at the cellular level. The ability to restore glucose levels or blood pressure back to normal after deviation caused by a stressor would characterize resilience at the level of tissue or physiological system, respectively. The ability to quickly heal a wound would be an indicator of resilience at the organ level. Finally, the ability to survive following an adverse health event would characterize resilience at the whole-body level.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
In many ways courage and resilience are used interchangeably as they both define an ability to confront something. However, I see courage as a measure of robustness, an ability to confront uncertainty or danger — whereas resilience is the ability to spring back after an adversity. Courage is what you use to face the adverse reaction whereas resilience is what allows you to recover quickly from that difficult event.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
As humans, our instincts are to fight bitterly against adversity. The most resilient among us will often find a way to fight it by embracing it.
On my desk is a copy of “The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch. Very few have talked about embracing adversity like him. A professor at Carnegie Mellon and a husband and father of three, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given only a few months to live. He gave his Last Lecture on Sept. 18, 2007. His story, and particularly this final lecture, are a powerful reminder of the strength of the human spirit.
It’s not about how to achieve your dreams, it’s about how to lead your life … If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself, the dreams will come to you.
— Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture
Randy decided to accept his situation and live out the days he had remaining by making a difference. He died on July 25, 2008, and now he lives on not only through his family but also through the millions he inspired. I am certainly one of them. He taught me that once we accept our situation and let go of the outcome, it allows us to adapt and even thrive in the face of adversity.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
I live by the motto “I accept no limitation”. I did not graduate with my first degree until I was 40 years of age. At the time, I was a single parent working many hours as a nursing assistant to try and provide for my son and me. I was just sinking deeper and deeper into debt and could not see myself providing the life I wanted for my son, so I decided to go back to school as a pre-med student. I was told by everyone that I was too old, that it would be too much of a transition for my son, that I would only incur more debt, that I should not move to a different state as I had no support network — and I should just accept where I am and make the best of it.
I decided that even if everyone was right — I still had to try and make a better life. So, I applied to a competitive elite school in New England, got accepted and studied neuroscience. I would love to say it was so easy — but it was the hardest thing I have done. Even though there were times when I wondered what I had taken on, it was one of the most rewarding times of my life. And despite what people told me, I actually thrived, and my experience then opened up graduate school for me.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
Yes, I was in an abusive marriage. I was married to a military man that had not had a kind life and he chose to express his insecurities through the marriage both physically and emotionally. I stayed with him for 6 years trying to make it work. Then one day, when he was yelling obscenities at me, I saw my young son on the stairs just looking at him and me — and I saw my son’s face and thought, I am not bringing up a child to think this is normal behavior. So, over the course of a month, I packed my sons and my things at night when my husband was asleep and then one day — we fled the country. I went back to the UK, but I was lonely and had very little support and little financial resources. It was one of my lowest ebbs of my life and I did not know how I was going to make things work. Plus, I was petrified that my husband would come and find us.
It was not a quick recovery. It took a year for me to be able to get past the fear that my husband would be waiting for us somewhere, and in that year, I worked on my self-esteem, my self-reflection, and my boundaries. Enough so, that I returned to the USA, divorced my husband and built a life that was grounded in honesty, harmony and balance. I also started giving back by volunteering as a domestic violence counselor.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
I was born into a military family, and we moved — every three years. Some would say that not staying in the same place, by not keeping the same friends would create insecurity. I find that military children are incredibly robust. They know how to adapt, to change, to make new friends, and cultivate an understanding of different cultures and places. That experience nurtured a love of travel, an understanding of different schools of thought, an ability to make friends wherever I go and an understanding that we are part of a global community. That resilience has allowed me to adapt to new situations, new opportunities, and new ways of thinking.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Environment — You are a product of your environment — First, instigate an environment that supports you. That means daily routines meant to maintain physical and emotional health. Establishing a healthy and consistent daily routine allows the body to be in tune with the cycles of nature, promoting optimal wellness. The activities include cleansing, massage, exercise, study, meditation and yoga.
There are clear guidelines about the timing of all these activities. The morning practices are intended to both calm and energize the body, preparing you for the day ahead. The evening ones are to help you relax before sleep. The recommended timings for these practices are in tune with the natural cycle of the sun. Although these practices are thousands of years old, they are as beneficial in the modern lifestyle as ever before.
- Toxins — Your gut is not Las Vegas. What happens in the gut does not stay in the gut — There are many action steps to reduce your toxic load that I encourage everyone to do. I remember a client, Mary, who was seemingly doing everything right. She was trying to eat healthy. She exercised regularly. She was working on getting better sleep. You would think she had her healthy lifestyle covered. But what she did not consider was the environmental toxins that her body was exposed to on a daily basis. She was missing out on a key piece of her healthy living plan.
Some environmental toxins are naturally occurring, such as lead or arsenic found in soil. However, most environmental toxins are man-made chemicals that are in products we use every day, from plastics and furniture, to cleaning sprays and personal care products, to food and food packaging, and everything in between.
Let’s go back to Mary, even though she was doing a lot of things right, she had a diagnosis of ulcerative colitis. I used all my tools, gave her an elimination diet, added rejuvenating and gut healing herbs — but still she was struggling. So, I went back to one of my basic principles — which was what is the root cause here. What else is going on? What eventually transpired is that she had mercury toxicity. After chelation therapy her ulcerative Colitis symptoms lessened and now one year later — she has no symptoms.
- Nutrition — You are what you can digest — Biological resilience starts with nutrition — not just the quality of the food you eat, but how well your digestive system can access the foods you eat. 80% of Americans have digestive problems. We can see that represented in the drug stores where there are a myriad of supplements to help with constipation, acidity, heartburn, bloating and diarrhea. This is most often where I start with my clients, because if we cannot digest our food well, fat soluble toxins build up in the body and we then increase inflammation. Inflammation is one of the major precursors to disease.
I remember Lyn talking to me one day just after a yoga class. She was complaining that she felt cold all the time, she had constipation, gas and bloating. Her anxiety was up and she was not sleeping well. When I asked her about her food she stated, “I eat really well, I have salads at least twice a day”.
Well, it was Fall and salads were not indicated for her so all I did was ask her to cook her food. She could still eat veggies but just cook them. She did this and within 2 weeks she was feeling so much better. She was sleeping through the night, she no longer had digestive problems, she wasn’t always cold, and she felt calmer and more grounded. Sometimes the smallest changes can make the biggest impacts.
- Self-Care — You can’t pour from an empty cup — Self-care is the most important way to boost and maintain both emotional and physical health. Many people today neglect it due to a lack of time, and this negatively impacts the lives of those who do not make sure they are putting themselves first. I am constantly amazed by the response when I ask someone to take just 20 minutes a day for themselves. It’s always met with “Oh, I don’t have time for that”, or “I won’t be able to get everything done if I take that time out for me”. Even though people intuitively understand that you cannot pour from an empty cup — it’s still a hard sell to get someone to engage in regular self-care.
So, why is self-care important? We live in a world obsessed with speed, with doing everything faster, with cramming more and more into less and less time. Every moment of the day can feel like a race against the clock. And even things that by their very nature are slow — we just speed up. I was in a small New England town that was advertising at their local gym ‘Speed Yoga”. Yes — it’s the perfect solution for time stressed yogis that want to find inner peace but only take 20 minutes for the whole process.
However, there is a more serious note to this; — in our sprint into daily life we lose sight of the damage that this “roadrunner” form of living does to us. We are so used to switching on and plugging in quickly that we fail to see the toll it takes on every aspect of our lives…but most importantly on our health, our diet, our work, and our relationships. And sometimes it takes a wake-up call doesn’t it to tell us that we are rushing through our lives. That in living the fast life…we forgot about the good life, and I think, for many people that wake up call is an illness. You know, where the body says, I can’t do this anymore and throws in the towel.
- Sleep — The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep — I find this statistic alarming. 48% of Americans have insomnia. That’s almost one in two people that don’t sleep well. What is going on — that half our population either can’t get to sleep or stay asleep. In our culture we have normalized this problem and there are aisles in the drug stores of drugs and supplements to manage this problem. Studies have shown that good sleep hygiene is directly correlated with good health and that poor sleep hygiene increases your risk of weight gain, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, depression, anxiety and inflammatory diseases like R.A, colitis, and autoimmune diseases. The key to avoiding chronic sleep deprivation and lowering your risk of disease is through setting up for a good night’s sleep by practicing good sleep hygiene.
Sleep hygiene is a set of behaviors that affects the quality of your sleep. Here is just one example: Don’t eat right before bed. Eating close to bedtime causes weight gain and disrupts your sleep cycle. Digestive sugar spikes and the production of stomach acid can also wake you from your sleep. And although it acts as a depressant at first, alcohol causes bouts of wakefulness as your body metabolizes it. It’s a good rule to stop eating about two hours before bed. A simple change in your routine like this will improve the quality of your sleep right away.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I am on a mission to disrupt the health industry. Your body does not need to be ‘fixed’; it needs to be ‘heard’ and then it needs to be treated uniquely as there is no-one else like you. We have reached a tipping point moment in our health, and we need to change. We must change our road runner lifestyles, our diets that no longer nourish us, we need to change how we give a pill for every ill and lastly, we need to stop specializing and sub specializing to such a point that we no longer see the whole person. And its that bridge of Eastern and Western medicine that can show us how. That is what I do through my company — The Holistic Highway.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
Gosh if only I could tag the Dalai Lama and have lunch with him.
One of my favorite quotes by him that I keep in my office is:
“When we meet real tragedy in life, we can react in two ways — either by losing hope and falling into self-destructive habits, or by using the challenge to find our inner strength … I have been able to take this second way”. Dalai Lama
He emanates an ability to understand human struggle and human compassion. Plus, he has the most infectious laugh. I just know that if we were to have lunch it would be one of the most profound and one of the giggliest lunches I have ever had.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can find me at:
The Holistic Highway: University of Pittsburgh Center for Integrative Medicine
Instagram: The Holistic Highway
Twitter: The Holistic Highway
Facebook: The Holistic Highway
My Book: The 25-Day Ayurveda Cleanse
Contact: [email protected]
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!