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10 Things I Learned About Health in Nicaragua

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Last Friday (8/23), I got home from one of the best vacations I’ve ever taken in my life. I spent 12 full days in Nicaragua, near San Juan Del Sur, at a beautiful ecolodge near the beach called Maderas Village. The lodge is set up on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and is a quick 10-minute walk down to Playa Maderas, a great beach with consistent surf, beautiful views, and plenty of new friends to hang out with. According to the website, “guests describe The Maderas Village as an undiscovered boutique resort, a summer camp for adults, or a retirement community for young people.” It’s not only a place to holiday, it’s also a place where many people come to escape the trappings of modern life while still being able to access the internet to do work so that they’re able to stay longer. I could definitely see myself escaping down to this incredible community on an annual basis so that I’m able to rejuvenate.

The village is lovely because it gives you just enough comfort (clean and comfortable bedding, fresh towels, in-room showers, ceiling fans, free hot coffee all day) while allowing you to be ‘exposed’ to the natural elements that many of us are missing in our everyday lives (fresh air, jungle noises, sudden downpours, and lots of sunshine). While some people might have complained about the lack of air conditioning or hot showers, I think it’s important for all of us to live closer to nature once in a while, as you’d be surprised how little you need to be comfortable and happy.

I loved the sense of community that Maderas Village fosters. We all would gather around for family dinner at 7:30 every night, sharing glasses of wine and stories from our day. While the kitchen was quite amenable to dietary requirements, I allowed myself to let loose these past two weeks and enjoy the food provided by the kitchen staff. This included: rice and beans, corn tortillas, wheat tortillas, homemade granola, yogurt, and even sushi. The food was fresh, delicious, and super healthy, even if it wasn’t what most readers would consider “paleo”. You might even be surprised to hear that I ate pizza on two separate nights, and had beer and other alcoholic beverages daily.

And guess what – I lost weight (I’m fitting in my clothes better), my skin didn’t break out, and I feel a lot more calm than I did before I left. Granted, I still have some work to do, but I feel enormously more healthy than I did before I left, despite breaking all the Paleo rules, drinking much more than I usually do, and getting woken up at 4 AM some mornings by some extremely cantankerous monkeys outside my window.

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Here are the top 10 reasons my trip to Nicaragua changed my views on holistic health:

1. Mindset can greatly affect your tolerance of food

At the village, I met a guy who has Crohn’s disease who has been very strict with his diet for the last few years in order to keep it under control. He even brought a juicer with him to the ecolodge in order to make sure he could stick with his strict regimen while on vacation. However, a few days later, I saw him eating rice and beans at breakfast, and I questioned him on his choice – was it normally something he ate at home as part of his Crohn’s meal plan?

He shocked me with his answer: he had decided to throw caution to the wind and just enjoy the food that was available at the resort, and just see what happened. The bigger shock? The man was having no flareups with his Crohn’s disease, despite eating grains and other foods he had strictly avoided for months. I was so happy for him that he was able to enjoy the traditional Nicaraguan foods that the kitchen was cooking for us all. He was pretty stoked too, and chalked the whole thing up to mindset.

I too went a little (okay, a LOT) off the Paleo rails during my trip. I had traditional Italian pizza on two separate nights, something I haven’t had in months due to fear of how it would affect my digestion, weight, skin, etc. I drank beer almost every day. I had rice and beans at almost every meal. And guess what: not only did I not experience any major health issues, but I also actually LOST weight. Now that I’m home, my clothes are fitting really well, and I feel so much more confident in a bathing suit. A huge part of that was my activity level, but I think another part of it was being able to truly relax about what I was eating and realize that the kitchen was cooking up delicious, traditional foods that had sustained their culture for generations… and I was confident it would sustain me for my 2 week trip as well. I was quite pleased to see that it did, and I would encourage anyone without a serious allergy or intolerance to certain “non-Paleo” foods to try loosening up a bit and seeing what happens when you eat foods you’ve previously labelled as “bad”. You might be surprised to see that some of these foods do not affect you as negatively as you’ve imagined them to.

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2. Physical activity is crucial for good health

One of my favorite components of this trip was getting to be active at multiple intervals during the day. Whether I was taking a 2-hour yoga class at 10 AM, renting a surfboard and trying to catch waves for 2-3 hours, going horseback riding in the jungle for 2-3 hours, swimming for 20 minute intervals across the day, or even just hiking up the mega-steep hill leading back to the village from the beach, I was running around and using my body in all sorts of different ways for a significant percentage of the day. I was also resting when I felt like my body needed it; after all, going from sitting 8+ hours a day to being active for nearly that long is a big transition, but one that made my body feel absolutely amazing. While being that active is not possible with my current lifestyle, it inspired me to focus on physical activity as a priority in my life, even if that means just getting in a yoga class or taking a long walk around the hills of Chapel Hill.

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3. Yoga is my new favorite “fitness” activity

Speaking of physical activity, I really fell back in love with yoga on this trip. My teacher for my week long retreat, Gillian St. Clair, was so inspiring for multiple reasons. One, she had a kick-ass but totally feminine and healthy body (stretch marks included!) that demonstrated to me what an attainable physique looks like that doesn’t require starvation, self-denial, or blatantly ignoring your femininity. (Not to mention, she had some seriously bad-ass tattoos.)

She also inspired me because of her attention to the spiritual side of yoga, and proved to me that yoga can be compatible with Christianity – something that many people might disagree with. However, Gillian’s teaching style made the yoga class not only strengthening to the mind and body, but also the spirit, allowing us to dedicate our practice to a higher Power, encouraging us to engage our awareness of the present moment, and asking us to consider the way we meet challenges not only on the mat but in life as well. I wish I had written down some of her great quotes throughout the week, but suffice it to say that she’s demonstrated to me that being a Christian and being a free-spirited yogi are not only compatible, but potentially grounds for greater spiritual development than simply attending church.

I used to think that yoga wasn’t necessarily that great of a workout, but now I’m rediscovering how challenging yoga can be and how great I feel after taking a class. I’m planning on sticking with it now that I’m home and getting to at least 2-3 classes a week at some of the great studios in Chapel Hill.

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4. Having lots of “stuff” doesn’t make you happier

On my second day in Nicaragua, my purse got stolen (I had stupidly put my bag down at my feet at a beach bar and someone managed to sneak off with it – rookie mistake!) At first I was horrified – while I still had my passport and some cash, I had lost my wallet, my cellphone, my digital camera, and even my flipflops and sunglasses. Talk about a potential trip-ruiner! However, I made a decision not to let this negatively impact my experience of the trip, and while it was weird to be out without a purse, I felt significantly freer and more able to focus on the moment rather than taking pictures, checking my phone, or generally allowing technology to get in the way of my experience.

Now that I’m back in the real world, I’m transitioning back into being on my laptop and phone for most of the day, which isn’t an ideal circumstance to be in, and I’m now more motivated to spend as little time as possible on my tech devices. You’d be surprised how much stuff you miss when your eyeballs are glued to a screen all day.

Also, I was pleasantly surprised to see how happy many of the locals were despite living in rather destitute conditions. While I wouldn’t necessarily trade places with them, I was a little jealous of the simplicity of their lives and the lack of coveting that goes on when you aren’t bombarded by advertisements all day telling you that your life isn’t complete until you buy X product. I hope to apply this to my life by simplifying my surroundings and focusing on experiences rather than material items as the path to enriching my life.

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5. Being barefoot all day is ahhh-mazing

I haven’t really had much opportunity to run around barefoot all day since I lived in Australia in 2010, but I was able to do that in Nicaragua. It took a little time for my feet to get used to rocks and gravel, but after a while it felt really nice to have such freedom for my feet and to have the added tactile experience of having nothing between your soles and the natural ground. Now that I’m back in the US, I’m struggling with the necessity of wearing shoes! I think being barefoot, even just for a small portion of the day, is a really nice way to get connected with the earth and let your feet move in ways that restrictive shoes won’t let them do during your 9-5.

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6. Cold showers can be quite pleasant

One thing some of the guests complain about at Maderas is the lack of hot water. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that a cold shower is really nice after a long hot day of yoga, surfing, and general beach-traipsing. People in the Paleo community often talk about cold thermogenesis as a way to improve health, and I never really thought about taking cold showers consistently – after all, they don’t sound very enjoyable! But now that I’ve been forced to have cold showers for two straight weeks, I think I might try getting into them, at least during the warmer months down here in NC!

7. Taking time for yourself is a non-negotiable for health

This was my first time in about 2 years taking a vacation, specifically one where I didn’t do any work (for grad school, for Chris Kresser, etc.), and honestly I was a bit nervous going into it. There were several reasons I was worried, including the fact that I couldn’t necessarily justify the expense at this time of my life, considering I’m an indebted grad student with a small income. However, after some convincing from my dad, I decided to take the plunge and go on the trip in order to have some serious me-time.

I can’t even explain how necessary this was for my mental and physical wellbeing. I’ve been spending so much time focusing on school, work, and career development that I’ve really ignored my own needs for way too long. I don’t think you realize how poorly you’ve been treating yourself until you spend a chunk of time solely focusing on doing anything and everything you want to do. Granted not everyone can take a 2 week holiday in Nicaragua, but I think including activities that are for pure enjoyment and personal happiness on a regular basis is an important part of the health puzzle that many of us are missing.

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8. It’s okay to do nothing

And even beyond doing activities that are purely fun, in Nicaragua I rediscovered the joy of doing nothing. This includes napping, laying on the beach, swinging in a hammock, sipping on a cup of coffee overlooking the ocean, and swilling a local beer at the beach while watching the sunset. I have a really hard time allowing myself to do nothing, but it’s pretty incredible how nice it feels to just totally switch off. I recommend trying to spend a few minutes every day avoiding all activities and just being present to your surroundings. This might mean meditating, birdwatching in your backyard, or people watching at a local coffee shop. It feels really nice to just be, rather than constantly do.

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9. Everyone looks better with less clothing on.

Admittedly, I was nervous heading down to Nicaragua. I’d gained the “grad school 15” (that’s a thing right?) over the past year and was having a hard time losing it without stressing myself out unnecessarily. I’ve come to terms with my new body, but I still wasn’t necessarily ready to strut around half naked in front of a bunch of surfers and yogis. But I realized that I didn’t give a $#*& what other people thought about my bikini body, and decided to just enjoy my time at the beach and doing the half-naked activities I loved.

Thus I was pleasantly surprised to realize that not only did I feel pretty confident in my less-than-perfect body, but I also saw tons of other people at the beach with what we’d consider mediocre physiques, and yet they looked radiant and attractive all the same. I had a semi-epiphany – not only do people all look better in a bathing suit, but that most people really don’t care what your body looks like in a bathing suit! No one is looking at you when there’s a beautiful ocean to pay attention to, and even if they were, who cares what they think? It was so liberating to run around the beach not caring if my body stacked up next to the surfer girls with ripped abs or tight bottoms. (And in fact, I think I looked pretty good.) It felt great being confident and I highly recommend hitting the beach, pool, or wherever you want to go, no matter what your body looks like. Don’t miss out on life simply because you don’t think you’re fit enough to engage in your favorite activities. You’d be surprised how little others care about what your body looks like in a swimsuit.

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10. Spending time socializing with others might be the missing piece of my (and your) health.

This was something that really hit home during my two weeks in Nicaragua. One of my favorite things about staying at Maderas is that they have a family-style dinner every night at 7:30, which is amazing for cultivating a sense of community and forming new (though temporary) friendships. We would all sit around the table talking, laughing, sharing stories, and playing games. I felt so incredibly energized being surrounded by so many people that had similar personalities to me, and it made me recognize that my social life in North Carolina is in serious need of attention. In fact, I would say that my lack of socialization is probably my weak link when it comes to attaining optimal health, and I’m now highly motivated to make it a priority now that I’m back in NC.

This is something I struggle with, since I tend to be a workaholic and I’m single, so I spend a lot of time at home alone. Most of my friends are engaged/married, so I frequently default to doing things on my own. However, after my experience in Nicaragua, I feel that building friendships and spending time socializing with other people my own age is an important part of my health and happiness, and I intend to prioritize it even while completing my final few months of my MPH-RD program.

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I could have written a LOT more about my trip, but I hope you’ve been inspired by my summary of my experience in Nicaragua! I can’t wait to go back… it’s truly a magical place.

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I'm a women's health expert and a registered dietitian (RD) with a passion for helping goal-oriented people fuel their purpose.

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