Total Health: Nora McCaffrey Birney Of The Institute for Integrative Nutrition On How We Can Optimize Our Mental, Physical, Emotional, & Spiritual Wellbeing
Connection is Key. I mentioned connection above and it’s also great for spiritual wellness. We thrive when we are able to connect with others in multiple ways. During the pandemic, many people were in isolation and their mental and emotional health suffered as a result. Human connection allows us to relate with others, create moments of joy and laughter, and give affection. Connection can entail talking with friends, spending time with family, or even meeting new people. At the end of each work day, I make time to build quality time with my kids. I put my phone away, play with them, and build a connection with my kids. It fills me up in a way I can’t describe. This fulfillment also happens when I talk to a friend over the phone, have friends over for dinner, or even go for a walk with my parents. Connections can alleviate stress, feel seen, and be loved.
Often when we refer to wellness, we assume that we are talking about physical wellbeing. But one can be physically very healthy but still be unwell, emotionally or mentally. What are the steps we can take to cultivate optimal wellness in all areas of our life; to develop Mental, Physical, Emotional, & Spiritual Wellbeing?
As a part of our series about “How We Can Cultivate Our Mental, Physical, Emotional, & Spiritual Wellbeing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nora McCaffrey Birney.
Nora McCaffrey Birney is the Chief Academic Officer for the Institute of Integrative Nutrition (IIN). She has a master’s in education and leads the IIN education team. She has been part of IIN for eight years and is dedicated to providing the best learning experience for Health Coaches.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up in Brooklyn, NY with my sister and parents. As a kid, I loved playing sports, going to the movies, exploring New York City, trying all the food New York has to offer and regularly venturing to the Catskills. When I think back to my childhood, I reflect on Sunday dinners with my family. The whole weekend would be spent following my parents around New York and picking up various items for Sunday dinner. We would sit together, tell stories of our week, and find moments of laughter. When we were not sitting at the table, I was riding my bike up and down the block, thinking I was invincible, eating Italian ices from the bakery around the corner, catching fireflies in my backyard, or playing in the snow during the wintertime.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
My career is driven by two passions: helping make the world a healthier and happier place and providing adults access to education that could transform their careers or personal lives.
As a kid, I struggled with depression. I was afraid to come out as gay and as a result, I went inward. Food served as a comfort and my inner world created a space of peace. As I got older, I came out, found happiness but learned there was a big health journey ahead. Over the course of my 20s and into my 30s, I spent a lot of time experimenting with different diets and healthy lifestyles. It was hard, painful, but also extremely rewarding. I ultimately came to a place where I have never felt better about myself.
Every person’s path is unique and special and I’m thrilled my career is dedicated to helping individuals through their wellness journey.
Online education allowed me the flexibility to pursue my passions for food and wellness. I was able to keep a career I was passionate about, be the parent I’ve always wanted to be for my two girls while obtaining a master’s degree and further certifications. I’m committed to providing the same opportunity for others of an accessible and flexible education for all learners.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
My parents had thriving careers. They were committed to a fulfilling career to reach their ambitions while also being exceptional parents. When starting my own career path, they taught me to not be afraid to follow through with my own ambitions. I’ve learned so much from mentors and peers along the way that have helped me grow: like the founder of The Institute for Integrative Nutrition, Joshua Rosenthal, as well as our current CEO, Lynda Cloud and my entire team at IIN. It’s a collection of passionate and dedicated individuals seeking to transform the world into a healthier and happier place.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or takeaway did you learn from that?
In one of my first few years at IIN, we were holding a webinar where students get a chance to connect with classmates, ask questions, and deepen their learning experience. We had recently switched to a new tech platform and were still learning the functionality. During the live webinar, we quickly realized there was no option to turn off student cameras during an online lecture. I should note, this was well before the days when using cameras was common. Students started waving at the camera, showing what they were eating, and putting up signs. This webinar did not go to plan at all. But we realized the students were completely happy just seeing each other, connecting, and sharing a laugh. The connection was all they wanted.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
About a year ago, I read Dirt by Bill Buford. It reminded me why I love food and cuisine. There is incredible history behind every cuisine and food traditions behind every culture. The quality of the soil, the caring of the land, and how we consume our food plays a pivotal role in health for humans and planet.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
A while back, someone said to me, “every light has a shade.” In other words, every person has something they are working on or improving upon. Any decision or event has pros and cons. No person is perfect and with their strengths come too, their challenges. It’s critical to see and understand both sides so you can figure out how to connect and engage with every person in the most valuable way.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
The focus of my team is the education that IIN provides. We are committed to giving students the best in class learning experience, providing thought leadership in all dimensions of health, and designing a space where learners can truly experience our education so they can have a more impactful transformation. Right now, we are working on a lot of great content for health coaches as well as for people on their wellness journey. This content will better train our coaches and increase opportunities for success. More to come soon!
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. In this interview series we’d like to discuss cultivating wellness habits in four areas of our lives: Mental wellness, Physical wellness, Emotional wellness, & Spiritual wellness. Let’s dive deeper into these together.
Based on your research or experience, can you share with our readers three good habits that can lead to optimum mental wellness? Please share a story or example for each.
- Sleep. Sleep supports almost all aspects of wellness. For mental wellness, it allows your brain to recharge and take on a new day. If I stay up too late or do not sleep well, I am not able to think clearly. I can’t focus, everything feels hard, and I just want to walk away from whatever I need address. Productive sleep isn’t just about sleeping for a specific period of time. It also entails deep sleep, REM sleep, and overall restfulness. Every person has different needs, so I encourage everyone to think about their natural circadian rhythm and experiment on what quality sleep means to them.
- Wellness breaks. It is very easy to get caught up in the day to day. We all have tasks and for many of us, they pile up and can overwhelm us. We often do not give ourselves permission to take breaks and think it is better for us to power through. Powering through may get us to complete a task by a specific time, but that takes a toll over time. I recommend carving out time for breaks. This can be little moments in your day, utilizing your non-work days, and taking time off. Sometimes a day to reset and do something for yourself can allow for better mental clarity and overall wellbeing. I took a wellness day just a few weeks ago. I did not fill my day with doing chores or addressing things on my to do list. Instead, I went moment by moment and did what I felt like I needed to do. I found myself taking a new path for my run, getting a massage, and connecting with family. The next day I felt completely reset.
- Meditation. A regular practice of meditation can support focus and stress. Meditation can take on many forms and I recommend starting small. Several years ago, I was experiencing regular stress and felt it was impacting how I showed up in all facets of my life. I tried a 30-day mindfulness course and built the habit of regular meditation. As a result, I have better clarity throughout the day and stay grounded even when times are tough.
Do you have a specific type of meditation practice or Yoga practice that you have found helpful? We’d love to hear about it.
Mediation can take on multiple forms for people, so it’s important for each person to explore what works for them. For me, I want to start each day with as much clarity and focus as possible. Every morning, I spend about 10 minutes doing a meditation. My practice focuses on breathing and presence. If I am unable to do my practice, I work to make space for it during lunch or at the end of the day.
During the pandemic, I found great value in walking meditations. I found myself on my computer for most of the day and was experiencing major exhaustion and brain fog. Over time, I built a habit of doing quick walking meditations. I connected with sounds, the feeling of the ground under my feet, and how the air felt on my face. It was only 10–15 minutes but I felt completely reset and energized.
If you are looking for meditation apps, I’ve enjoyed Headspace, Calm, and FitMind.
Thank you for that. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum physical wellness? Please share a story or example for each.
- Sleep. I mentioned sleep above for mental wellness, but it also extremely relevant for physical wellness. If my sleep is not productive, I find myself unable to focus the next day, my eating habits change, and I am less likely to exercise. However, getting enough sleep, or productive sleep, is not always an easy task. Stress, when you eat, and what you do right before bed all impact how productive your sleep is. For example, if I find myself checking emails late in the evening, watching TV before bed, or eating shortly before bed, I struggle with productive sleep. Sleep is a time for your body to recharge and reset, so I’ve found it helpful to build a routine to promote productive sleep. On most days, I try to eat two hours before bed and I avoid screens at least one hour before bed. Once ready for bed, I read. Others find journaling a great habit before bed as it gets out thoughts and fears before going to sleep.
- Movement. Movement is important for optimal wellness. You are increasing blood circulation, increasing oxygen levels, and getting a change of scenery. At the start of the pandemic, I was getting increased pain in my lower back. I thought it was because I was pushing too hard when I was running or lifting. I later learned it was because I was sitting much more. Before the pandemic, I was walking to and from work, moving between meetings, and many times taking walking meetings in the park. To reduce backpain, I’ve made a habit to move a bit every hour. This can include going up and down my stairs. Walking around while in a meeting, or taking my dogs out quickly. Movement can be so many different things and it’s important to find what works for you. I love running, swimming, hiking, and CrossFit. Others love dance, yoga, or biking. I encourage people to experiment and find what works for them. I also recommend noticing when your body needs a change. Sometimes walking is what your body needs rather than a run or swim. Movement has a wonderful impact on physical wellness but it also helps with mental and emotional wellness. Whenever I go for a run or walk, I find my brain thinking about things in completely different ways. One day, I was frustrated with an issue at work. I couldn’t find a solution and it was causing my team to not be able to move forward. I took thirty minutes and went for a run. By the time I came back, I thought of at least two solutions and was able to implement right away.
- Hydration. In my late 20s, I found myself getting constant headaches. I couldn’t understand what was causing it. I had my vision checked, got screens to filter out blue-light and played with lighting in my home. I was reading an article one day and the topic of hydration came up. I started to wonder if that was causing my headaches. I increased my water consumption and my headaches completely disappeared. Hydration has helped me stay more active, eat a more balanced diet, and reduce consumption of other beverages like coffee and alcohol. I encourage people to check how much water they drink daily and evaluate if it is enough. It’s also worth looking into electrolytes as that can significantly improve hydration.
Do you have any particular thoughts about healthy eating? We all know that it’s important to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, etc. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives?
So many of us put rules on what we should or should not eat. As a result, this causes us to feel guilt or shame when we do not meet our self-made rules. Just the other day someone was telling me that they gave themselves an allotment of sweets they could eat each day. This created incredible stress for them, but they thought it was good for them. She then told me that she stopped putting food rules on herself and everything changed. She felt less guilt and shame and she actually found herself eating less sugar than before.
Rather than put rules on yourself, be kind to yourself. Listen to what your body needs and go from there. If there is a food or eating habit you are not happy with, first reflect on why you’re not happy. From there, take a small step towards where you want to go and see how you feel. As an example, I noticed I was eating a lot of pastries at breakfast. I saw a habit building and I was getting more headaches in the middle of the day. The next day, I kept a piece of toast on my plate, but I added greens. Slowly, I was able to crowd out what was not serving me and I felt so much better.
Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum emotional wellness? Please share a story or example for each.
- Journaling/Reflection. For many, our days our hectic and we are moving from one activity to another. Oftentimes, we do not hold space to reflect on how a certain event made us feel. We quickly move on to the next thing and don’t address our feelings until we think we can. Journaling, or creating a space for reflection, can allow us to get out what we are thinking and feeling. It can allow us to playback events of the day and truly consider how it made you feel in the moment. This can allow us to release emotions, feel what we need to, and take a step forward in healing. I try to journal at the end of each week. I play back the week and reflect on what transpired and what I accomplished. I check-in with myself on how I am doing and what I can do next week to help keep myself balanced and well.
- Laughter. Over the summer, I had a series of incredibly stressful weeks. I was feeling drained and less hopeful. I went to a friend’s house for dinner and we ended up hysterically laughing for hours. We were laughing so hard; our neighbor came by to join the fun. The next day, I woke up feeling cheerful and renewed. Laughter is a great emotional release and can allow you to reconnect with the part of you that is impacted by stress. It can allow you to see the brighter side of things and create moments of happiness in stressful times.
- Connection. Sharing and connecting with others, gives you the opportunity to voice what is on your mind to someone who cares about you and will truly listen. You also have the opportunity to gain perspective on other people’s experiences and be there for them, when they need someone. Emotional connection is extremely fulfilling and allows you to explore yourself with others. Connection can happen with friends, family, and new friends! Some find value in packs of friends, while others prefer one to one connection. Both are fine and you should explore what works for you and fills you up.
Do you have any particular thoughts about the power of smiling to improve emotional wellness? We’d love to hear it.
I try to smile as often as I can. I find it allows me to stay in the right headspace and think positively. But, if you do not want to smile, that’s ok. I don’t think we need to force ourselves. I think the bigger value is taking time to see the silver lining in whatever is happening in the moment.
Finally, can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum spiritual wellness? Please share a story or example for each.
- Connection is Key. I mentioned connection above and it’s also great for spiritual wellness. We thrive when we are able to connect with others in multiple ways. During the pandemic, many people were in isolation and their mental and emotional health suffered as a result. Human connection allows us to relate with others, create moments of joy and laughter, and give affection. Connection can entail talking with friends, spending time with family, or even meeting new people. At the end of each work day, I make time to build quality time with my kids. I put my phone away, play with them, and build a connection with my kids. It fills me up in a way I can’t describe. This fulfillment also happens when I talk to a friend over the phone, have friends over for dinner, or even go for a walk with my parents. Connections can alleviate stress, feel seen, and be loved.
- Self-Reflection. Connecting with others is important but so is connecting with yourself. Try to spend each day reconnecting with your body and mind. These connections can allow us to tap into areas that need attention and appreciate our bodies and unique selves. Every person is amazing and beautiful and it’s important to love yourself and everything you bring into the world. Sadly, it’s super easy to lose sight of your value these days. Building a habit of connecting with self can allow you to appreciate yourself and what you offer the world.
- Seek Spirituality. Spirituality can take on many forms: religion, connecting with nature, or forming a unique connection with some higher power. At the core, it’s understanding that there is a higher power beyond oneself and their immediate surroundings. There are incredible things happening around us and it’s important to connect with that concept in whichever way you can. For me, I try to connect with nature as much as possible. Whether I am exploring the woods, swimming in the ocean, or looking up at the stars, I am amazed with how vast our universe is and what it took to create it. It puts issues or challenges into perspective and allows me to connect with love and happiness.
Do you have any particular thoughts about how being “in nature” can help us to cultivate spiritual wellness?
I try to get in nature as much as possible. Nature is an amazing way for us to connect with our surroundings, see the bigger picture, and energetically reset. It can remind us how big this world is and contemplate all the complexities that exist to maintain our world.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
One of the great things about working at IIN is the contribution we make in helping people transform their lives.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them :-)
Alice Waters. I love her approach to food and philosophies on farming. Her story is fascinating and what she puts on a plate is incredible. I have a lot of her cookbooks and everything comes out great. I also have enjoyed following her daughter, Fanny Singer. I appreciate her comments on food, climate, sustainability, and creative expression.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can follow me on LinkedIn and Instagram. To learn more about the education programs my team works on, check out the Institute for Integrative Nutrition website, https://instituteforintegrativenutrition.com/.
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.