The Two Best Things I’ve Ever Done for My Health


Rachel Lee

May 21, 2024

It was about time I fully practiced what I preach: prioritizing myself first. Although this can mean a plethora of things in the jungle of the self-care and anti-stress wellness industry, for me, this meant that I had to nail down my emotional coping mechanisms. I wanted to know what it felt like to choose what I was suggesting to my clients at every opportunity- to know what it felt like to do a minute of breath work instead of having a glass of wine, which ultimately would help me explore what I truly needed when I was seeking a coping mechanism. 

I had to stop relying on alcohol and weed as a crutch. This might immediately bring to mind an image of me pounding a bottle of wine and a joint every single night, but no it wasn’t. It was far more common for what we allow to pass as “moderation” – a glass of wine or two one night during the weekdays, a couple drinks out to dinner on the weekend or at brunch, and half of an edible if I couldn’t sleep or it had been one hell of a week. 

But even at this rate of socially acceptable intake, the reality is that I still felt crappy more often than I wanted to. I wanted to wake up feeling good. I wanted more energy and to know I wouldn’t be chasing down an afternoon cup of coffee to get through the day. Entering my 30’s, those one or two drinks still took their toll on me. 

A big reason that I’m writing this is because I know I’m not the only one who wants to feel this way; most of my clients come to me for the same thing. They want to feel “better,” which they define as waking up with more energy, looking forward to the day, and feeling happier, like work isn’t weighing on them like Sisyphus’ boulder. 

However, we’re hesitant to start down the path of the things we know we should do that will help. We know that not drinking, going to bed earlier, and not doom scrolling might help. We know of people who have been sober for years; they’re healthy and energetic role models to us. But what we don’t talk about as much is the gray area when we’re just getting started- what it feels like when you’re debating making these decisions that feel big, but they’re really a series of micro decisions. Even when we say that we want to feel better, it’s hard for us to imagine what that even looks like for us. 

As I’ve noticed how much better I feel from just a month of not drinking and doing daily breath work, the two quantitative metrics I’ve seen change the most are my HRV and percentage of restorative sleep. This is how I’ve been able to quantify what it’s like to feel good, which is so subjective that it’s nearly an abstract concept. Seeing these metrics on a daily basis has made this feeling more of an objective reality for me, and I hope it might make it easier for someone else out there so they know what to look for when they want to make these lifestyle changes.

Heart Rate Variability

Heart rate variability, or HRV, is the change in time between one heartbeat to the next. Your heart rate is the number of beats per minute, but the time between beats is HRV. It’s a reflection of how agile your heart and nervous system are; how well your heart rate can speed up when facing a threat and how quickly it can slow down to restore and recover. If you have a low HRV, that means that there’s not a lot of time between your heart beats, which means it’s beating faster- an indication that you’re living in more of a “fight or flight” or sympathetic response.

The higher your HRV, the better you’re able to activate your parasympathetic nervous system and slow down, which is known for its “rest and digest” attributes. Research indicates that a higher HRV is associated with lower anxiety and depression, enhanced cognition, improved physical health, and greater resilience. HRV varies widely between people, so instead of comparing your HRV to someone else’s, it’s better to look at trends within your own HRV. 

In the past month, my HRV has increased 35% from an average of 46 to 62. This makes sense; on mornings after I used to drink, I noticed my HRV was much lower than normal, in the mid 30’s. From a month of not drinking, it’s climbed into the high 50’s. I noticed that adding in a daily 10 minutes of breathwork helped move it higher into the 60’s and even low 70’s on some days. 

Restorative Sleep

Restorative sleep refers to deep, or “slow wave” sleep and REM sleep. We sleep in cycles, progressing through light, deep, and REM stages and repeating throughout the night. Deep sleep is important for physical recovery, including cellular repair. Rapid eye movement, or REM sleep, is essential for optimal brain function, such as memory formation, processing of emotional information, and neural plasticity. These types of sleep are both essential, and research has shown that chronic sleep disruptions are associated with reduced gray matter volume in the prefrontal cortex, impaired executive functioning, and greater symptoms of depression. 

What this means is that you can sleep for 8-9 hours and still get poor quality sleep. That’s why so many of us are confused: “I sleep a ton, but I still wake up feeling sluggish and need coffee.” What’s more important to focus on is sleep quality: how much of your sleep is deep and REM?

I used to get as little as 45 minutes to an hour and a half of total of deep and REM- even less if I had alcohol that night, which is consistent with the research. After I started tracking on my WHOOP, I noticed that my total deep and REM was in the mid 30% range- about 2 to 3 hours. I still woke up feeling sluggish and tired. However, after I stopped drinking and fixed my breathing mechanics, my total deep and REM jumped up to numbers between 40 and 50%. I started waking up without my alarm clock. I realized I hadn’t had a cup of coffee in a few days. I started forgetting to take my ADHD medicine – something I used to believe was absolutely essential to my cognitive functioning. I just didn’t need these things anymore – my brain just needed better sleep. 

To Drink or Not To Drink

I’ve actually tried going sober before, but it was California sober. Cannabis doesn’t have the hangover effects of alcohol, which was my argument the last time. However, even though cannabis can help you fall asleep faster, increasing research shows that it reduces the amount of REM sleep. Even more evidence shows that alcohol negatively impacts sleep and HRV. So this time, I decided to cut out cannabis to not only increase my sleep quality, but to also eliminate the last significantly mood-altering substance. I wanted to challenge myself to completely feel and be mindful, especially in the moments I was trying to cope. I didn’t want anything to cloud my mind when I was trying to figure out what I really wanted and needed. 

It’s funny- not drinking felt like a massive life altering decision in the beginning when I decided to start, but then ended up just being a series of very small decisions. “If you’re a non drinker, you have to re-organize your life to only do things that are fun sober,” I thought. It couldn’t be further from the truth. I learned that there’s only two things I had to do if I want to not drink: in the moment when I encountered an opportunity to drink, I had to 1) decide not to 2) have an alternative and equally appealing non-alcoholic option for me. I didn’t have to make different plans. I didn’t have to tell the world. I just had to go one decision at a time.

The question I asked myself was: do I want this drink now, or do I want to wake up feeling awesome tomorrow? I used to choose the drink, but since my #1 priority is feeling good, I just kept choosing the latter. I learned that my actions just had to reflect the order of my priorities. 

When I prioritized not drinking so I’d feel better waking up every day, I never imagined I’d feel this good. I couldn’t picture what that would look like in my life. I wake up at the same time every morning without an alarm, and I only snooze once instead of 5 times. I don’t crave coffee anymore, and I actually forget to have it most days. I don’t need an afternoon pick-me-up or a nap. I remember more and don’t have to frantically write things down in my notes app before I forget. I feel more creative, not only with work, but even with my hobbies like cooking. I can focus in periods of deep work longer. I naturally get tired at the same time and fall asleep faster than ever before. 

It’s such a silly cultural fallacy that we need to drink in order to enjoy life. However, it’s been drilled into us for so long, from so many different angles, that it’s really hard not to believe. But because of this, I was nervous the first few times I was offered wine at dinner or while meeting a friend for a cocktail. But the reality is, I was able to have better, more meaningful conversations with the people most important to me, with the people I really wanted to spend time with. That’s been an unanticipated benefit of not drinking; it’s helped me figure out what I actually like and don’t like to do. I realized that I actually don’t like crowded bars that you can’t dance in because you have to yell over people just to have a bad conversation. I realized that I prefer seeking out really good live music or places you can actually dance. I like spending more time outside in the sunshine, hiking, working out, or just strolling along the Charles. I like the quiet of mornings before the city comes to life, and I love quality time with my people, being able to learn about their hopes and dreams on a deeper level to see how we can make it all happen for each other. 

Correcting My Breath Mechanics

I’ve been in the ice bath coaching space for two years, and breath work is deeply intertwined with it. However, for the longest time, I wasn’t drawn to breath work. While there are many, many different types, they were all such big time and energy commitments- I’m sorry but no, I don’t really want to do an hour of holotropic breathing or three rounds of Wim Hof. Everything I found was more work than what I knew I would do on a consistent basis. 

I also found it fascinating that a lot of the breath work out there focused on how you’re breathing for just one hour a day. So at the beginning of the year when I was introduced to Dr. Belisa Vranich’s work and her focus on your breath mechanics during the majority of the 22,000 breaths you take every single day, I was sold. Breathing mechanics enhance how you breathe normally, when you’re not exercising, and how it impacts your health. As I dug into her books, I realized that I breathed differently in certain situations; my breath became more shallow and faster when I was stressed. I discovered that I was holding my breath and sighing while in deep focus. And most fascinating, I realized I was bracing my rib cage as an emotional defense. 

When I decided to become certified in her program, I finally learned how to use my breath as a tool to choose how I want to respond in stressful situations, whether physical or mental. However, the more I practiced, the more I noticed what was inhibiting me from breathing properly – I couldn’t relax my ribcage to take a deep enough inhale. 

We brace due to emotional and physical trauma as well as cultural beauty standards. Bracing is a self-defense mechanism to protect ourselves from approaching danger, whether that’s a car crash or hearing someone yelling. As women, we also brace and flex our core because it’s been drilled into our minds that we must have a narrow waist to be deemed attractive. I realized that bracing my core for 20 years was my metal shield.

Learning to let go of my rib cage brought more emotion to the surface than I expected. Without my shield, I felt vulnerable. I was confronted with deeply held beliefs about things I had to protect myself from, things I thought I needed to do to be who I wanted to be. Using the diaphragmatic breath to cultivate a feeling of safety inside myself allowed me to finally- finally- let those beliefs go and find acceptance and love with exactly who I am right now. Letting go of my emotional corset has been more liberating than I ever imagined. Now I actually know what it feels like to take a deep breath:  the expansion on every side of your body and the depth of how much air you can bring into your lungs. Now, when I focus on my breath, it triggers a profound sense of gratitude. You don’t know what you have until it’s gone, or until it’s being challenged. We really take our breath for granted every single day, even though it’s what really keeps us alive. By harnessing the quality of every single breath that I take, I never imagined how positive of an impact it could have on my health.

Hierarchy of Your Priorities

The only real decision I’ve made by not drinking and doing daily breath mechanics work is changing the order of my priorities. I moved my #2 priority to #1: to feel my best every day. Yes, there’s a spider web of factors that amount to this, but getting completely clear on my priorities made all of the habits that contribute to this fall into place. It allowed me to gain confidence from knowing that I can cope with whatever life hands me without alcohol and just by using my breath. It allowed me to quantify what feeling good means through my sleep quality and HRV, and to see sleeping and breathing as the cornerstones of health. It sounds so obvious, but the wellness industry focuses much more on exercise and nutrition. 

We don’t realize just how many of our other actions affect how we sleep and breathe. I didn’t expect how many other things I’d have to work through in order to improve my sleep and breath- the biggest of which was my emotional coping strategies. But now, I’m able to respond to stress better than before because I’m more acutely aware of what I need instead of masking it with alcohol or another distraction. 

I’m not sure if I’ll be a non-drinker forever. Ironically, I have an Intermediate Wine Certificate from the International Guild of Sommeliers- I really enjoy learning about wine and how it can be best paired with food! Right now, I’m prioritizing feeling good in preparation for a Hyrox race, but who knows- maybe during my friend’s wedding in Mexico my priorities will change. Yes, your actions reflect your priorities, and that’s who you are. But, the amazing thing is that your priorities can always change. They can change year to year or from one context to another.

If you want to be your most authentic self, you have to rank your priorities and look at whether your actions are aligning with them. If they’re not, you’re not a failure- you actually gained access to an incredibly valuable insight. You get to dig in to see what was going on in those moments that made you not prioritize something you said that you wanted. This is where growth is. What came up that felt more pressing? What exactly in that moment came up that led you to make a different decision? Lean into that moment and explore it, tease it out. It’s only through learning in these moments that we actually grow. 

If you don’t know how you’d order your priorities, think about the habits that make you feel the happiest most often. It will take some trial and error, but when you figure it out, you’ll realize that you want to defend it fiercely, because you discovered your best self. What makes this period of exploration even more worthwhile is that it will help you find your community, because they will be people that you want to be around, people with whom you don’t have to defend your decisions, because they live by the same priorities as you.

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