By Ameera Steward
For the Birmingham Times
2020: New Year, New You
The new year signals a new start, making resolutions popular for many. The goals people set range from learning new skills to giving up bad habits, but the most common ones usually involve health and wellness, whether through exercise or diet. Here are some words of wisdom from a Birmingham metro area wellness expert to help you improve your physical and mental health in 2020 and beyond.
When Chestoria Smith was diagnosed with stage IV thyroid cancer in 2015, she turned to herbs, which she used for teas, cooking, and supplements.
“I didn’t have to do any chemotherapy. I didn’t have to do any radiation,” said the 31-year-old Southside Birmingham resident. “I went on an alkaline diet, and afterward I spent time on my grandparents’ farm. I did have to have surgery, but that was to remove the piece of the tumor that was left after I changed my diet and started eating herbs.”
Herbs helped Smith mentally and emotionally — especially after finding out that she had a terminal illness.
“Herbs like skullcap, lemon balm, and kava kava help to calm my nerves and [correct] the imbalance of hormones. They helped with not only the cancer but also my mental state,” she said. “A lot of people don’t know … that you [can] have chemical imbalances in your body that you need to pay attention to. … [Certain] herbs naturally help [restore the] balance.”
Smith, a cancer survivor, now only takes a hormone replacement for her thyroid and watches what she eats. She also does yoga and avoids things that will affect her stress levels.
“I’m living holistically, which covers all aspects of your health—mental, physical, emotional,” she said. “God created [herbs] for us to use, so use them. … They [can] replenish, restore, revive, and renew the body.”
Herbs are beneficial not just for when people get sick but also as a preventive measure to keep people from getting sick, said Smith, adding that they are God’s way of saying that everything humans need for healing can be found in nature.
“If you’re taking care of yourself on a daily basis, you don’t have to worry about dosing yourself with medicine to get better,” Smith said. “Herbs are just a way to remind us that self-care is so important.”
Herbs have helped some her family members who have dealt with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, depression, anxiety, obesity, and other ailments, said Smith.
“I have a … grandmother who just came off her blood pressure medication within a month’s time because of herbs,” she said.
Smith explained that the nervous system is responsible for balancing certain hormones in the body, and sometimes those hormones can become unbalanced or triggered due to environmental issues, anxiety, work, or what a person eats. Because herbs are natural and contain vitamins and minerals, ingesting them can help replenish what the body may be missing.
Depression, for instance, is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, she said. Certain herbs, such as kava kava, can help restore those chemical imbalances, which can be due to a lack of nutrients.
Depression is an issue Smith dealt with personally after her son was stillborn in 2014.
“I use kava kava because after my son [died during childbirth], I checked myself into an Atlanta, Ga., hospital for two months [to deal with] postpartum depression,” she said, adding that the painful loss required her to step away to “connect with God.”
Smith, who works at Golden Temple Natural Grocery and Cafe in Five Points South, said kava kava is one of the herbs often used by people who take medicine for depression and want to try something more natural: “Typically, they go to kava kava because it’s similar to medication prescribed for depression.”
“Everything found in herbs is found in your body,” Smith said. “If you’re low on something, it just goes into your body. … Your body is so smart that whatever you don’t need, your body will flush it out.”
Herbs can provide energy, as well as vitamins, minerals, and nutrients—“Things to help the body function and maintain balance,” Smith said.
Maintaining balance is important for overall health, and that balance often involves the body’s pH levels. According to an article at Healthline.com, “The pH scale measures how acidic or alkaline (basic) something is. Your body works constantly to carefully control pH levels of blood and other fluids. … The right pH levels are needed for good health.”
Most herbs are alkaline, Smith explained, so they help the body get rid of toxins.
“There are acidic herbs, … but probably 80 percent of the things that come from the herb are used to heal,” she said.
There is a mental component to using herbs, too: “Herbs will work, but you have to also believe they’re going to work. … It requires you to focus on your healing,” she said.
Best Way to Use Herbs
Smith said herbs are most effective through teas, as well as by growing and cooking them. If you are taking prescribed medication, however, you always want to check with a pharmacist before taking any herb.
“Although it’s a natural thing, … you’re mixing a man-made substance with a natural substance,” she said, adding that it is especially important to check with a pharmacist if you are pregnant or have high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
Even though Smith is knowledgeable when it comes to herbs, she advises people to educate themselves and do research on the ones they want to use.
“Google is your friend, and there’s so much knowledge out there,” she said. “Your local health food stores will also be able to help you.”
When focusing on a healthy lifestyle, it is important to combine herbs with other things like changing your diet to incorporate more fruits and vegetables and making sure you get adequate water and sleep, Smith explained.
“Herbs are important, but in order to be whole, we have to make sure we are targeting every area of our lives—mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional,” she said.
The New Year
For those who want to start the new year with a detox or cleanse, the most important thing to do is to first build up the immune system, Smith said.
“[Detox regimens] flush out nutrients and other stuff you need, and you can become very weak,” she said. “Prior to doing a detox, it’s recommended that you build up your immune system by drinking elderberry and echinacea tea.”
For those who want a mild, natural cleanse, dandelion root and burdock root teas are the best two herbs because both flush out and build up the liver and kidneys, Smith said, adding that “… the gut is pretty much where all disease starts because the gut and the kidneys are where all of your nutrients … are filtered. The kidneys and gut say, ‘OK, we need this to go here to give it to this.’ If your gut and kidneys are malfunctioning, your whole body begins to shut down.”
Elderberry, dandelion, and burdock are all alkaline herbs that raise the body’s pH, Smith pointed out.
Colon cleansing or detoxing is good, too, but Smith said it’s important while doing this to replenish the body with something “whether it be more fruits … or more vegetables. … It’s the most important thing you can do when you’re trying to start … being more physically healthy.”
Chestoria Smith sells herbal blends through a business called Tea Love; for more information, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Instagram @tealovesapothecary14, or visit Golden Temple Natural Grocery and Cafe (1901 11th Ave. S., Birmingham, AL 35205) to purchase her teas. Smith also teaches an herbal class; the next one is Feb. 2, 2020, at Golden Temple from 3 to 6 p.m. To register, send an email to email@example.com (the last day for registration is Jan. 25, 2020).
Therapy should be seen as empowering
Like many in the African American community, Chestoria Smith grew up in a household where mental illness wasn’t really talked about.
“[In our family], we were told to ‘Just pray it away,’” she said.
That mindset changed for Smith when her son was stillborn in 2014. She signed herself into an Atlanta, Ga., hospital to help her heal from the pain of losing her baby, as well as deal with past issues “because we suppress a lot of things, and we don’t know it,” said the 31-year-old.
“Talking to somebody and getting the care I needed really helped me. It also made me want to help other people suffering in silence because … you feel that you’re looked at as this crazy person when you decide to go see a therapist or if you decide to go get help, but God placed people here to help us.”
There are positives and negatives when it comes to the way mental health is dealt with in the black community, Smith said.
One negative: The way mental health is seen by some as “very unhealthy,” she said. “It has a lot to do with lack of information and lack of knowledge, and also being tied to tradition and religion.”
“On the more positive side, … now that mental health awareness is becoming more prevalent, I think a lot of people are getting more information, a lot of people are speaking out more,” Smith said, adding that seeing a therapist and spending time with other people who are seeing therapists can be helpful, as well.
“It was just inspiring to see that I wasn’t the only one,” she said. “More importantly, I realized that I was experiencing it so I could be a testimony and help other people. Other black women out there have lost children, … have gone through cancer, and feel like they don’t have hope; they’re down, they’re depressed.”
Smith said, “It’s important that people know … they are loved,” she said. “God wants us to live a healthy, long lasting, bountiful life. … [God] loves us enough to create people and things to help us.”
For more tips from experts on health and wellness going into the new year, click one of the links below.