Yes, Rachel Hughes Really is that Positive and Radiant!
6 minute read
Rachel Hughes is a graduate of Vassar College and received a MSEd from Bank St. College, NYC, with a focus on Museum Education. She later obtained her license in Nutritional Counseling and worked with chronic pain patients for over 10 years at the New England Center for Chronic Pain in Greenwich, CT. After finding that perimenopausal symptoms were disruptive to her life, Rachel launched her own platform, Rachel Hughes Midlife, a lively, engaging and relatable feed for women of all backgrounds to be inspired to live a healthy, vibrant second season of life. Rachel is also the host of “Perry Talks” a series of live interviews with physicians, experts, thought leaders and inspirational voices on all things peri/menopause on the @ohhelloperry app. Rachel works to bring inspirational, inclusive and pertinent information to those seeking thoughtful and meaningful support during this season of life.
I first came across Rachel on Instagram and I just fell in love with her! Her social presence is so positive and yet also sneakily kicks your butt into gear, just by example. Watching her videos always inspires me to move more, smile more, eat better, and even drink more water. I wanted to find out if she was really all that in person, and, guess what, she’s more! Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Enjoy!
Anne: You are such force on Instagram and not just about menopause, but also about self-esteem and wellness and movement. It's really one of my favorite accounts and I just love what you're putting out there in the universe. How did you get started in all of this wellness stuff?
Rachel: Well, thank you for that…I was working with a functional medicine practitioner here in Connecticut for over 10 years. I'm not a chiropractor, I'm not a physician. I worked specifically with chronic pain patients that he was treating with a device that seemed hit or miss. It was either miraculous or it could be a bummer. In my conversations with patients, I thought something else was going on. The one thing I noticed was that everyone's eating habits are really poor, and their sleep is really poor, and it's easy to blame all of this on the pain they're suffering with. I was getting my license—I am a licensed certified nutritional coach—and I approached the doctor and said, I'm really interested in having conversations with people about nutrition and inflammation and other ways they can approach remedying their pain. And he said, that's great. So I was able to explore that and work with patients under his umbrella. And I opened my own little business, working with women who were in midlife and examining nutritional protocols with them.
And so I did that for a while, but then Covid happened and everything just stopped. And at that time I was looking for information for myself about perimenopause and menopause. I had started to suffer with anxiety that was divorced from the whole Covid thing. I think I entered perimenopause in my early forties. And it was my mother actually who said to me, “You know, you may be in perimenopause, you should go speak to your gynecologist.” And I did, and my unbelievably wonderful and dear GYN, Dr. Shieva Ghofrany, said, “Yup, that sounds about right! You likely are, given what you’re telling me and here's the spectrum of help I can offer you to mitigate your symptoms, should you want to take anything.” And at that time I thought, let me try the way of the “supplement,” but in my case it was like 50 supplements, or whatever. Let me try the way of nutrition. Let me try sort of the functional medicine approach here and see what happens.
And cut to 2020 and lockdown and I started really looking online and looking at Instagram, and I opened an account just so I could scroll and be nosy and search. And I noticed a lack of women of color specifically talking about perimenopause and menopause. And I thought, well, I can start talking about it. I'm going through it. I'm doing all of the things I know to do to manage and mitigate and temper my symptoms and let's see what happens. So I started with that and I started with “the meno memos” and I was really floundering around and doing my best, not really knowing what I was doing. And I started to feel a little intimidated around the nutritional discussion because there were physicians and functional medicine practitioners and people who had years under their belt sort of in conflict with each other. But I felt like well, there are still certain best practices that I know to be true: I know to eat more plants than not. I know soda's not a good idea. I know sleep is important. I know stress mitigation is important. So let me try and hone in on that conversation in general.
And I continue to speak about wellness in broad strokes, because whether you’re taking hormones, and in my case right now, I'm taking MHT and I'm getting a tremendous amount of help, I still honor those best practices. I know that they matter. They matter to my health, my longevity, they matter to staving off chronic disease. It all works in tandem as far as I'm concerned. So that's the conversation that I want to encourage women to consider. And that's how I look at myself, wanting to cheer for people, and let them know information they may not know, but ultimately encourage them to seize the reins on their own health, their own mental health and physical health, and get on with the business of life.
Anne: Can you tell me more about your own menopause journey?
Rachel: So, I was living with anxiety. I was feeling depressed, which I had already had bouts of throughout my life, so it wasn't unfamiliar, but it had been a while. And then there were other things like, I had terrible aches and pains. I had awful, awful brain fog that was really getting in the way of having a functional day. Skin issues, the acne, to the point where I said “Okay, something's happening because I'm doing all the things, nutritionally to take care of my skin and everything else…I’m meditating, I’m taking supplements, I’m trying everything I know to try and I’m hitting the wall.” I just reached a point where I felt like I was no longer successfully managing my symptoms and then I started not sleeping. And that's when I said, “This is really bad.” Also, I also felt like I was having a hard time being in the same room as my husband for an extended period of time, and you know, say what you will, it sounds funny to many of us, but I was tired of grumbling at him. So, a lot of things were becoming challenging at the same time.
Eventually, I came to believe I wasn't giving myself a fair shot. I wasn't experiencing life anymore from a level playing field. My hormonal experience was in the way. I was never against taking hormones, I just felt like it wasn't for me. And then suddenly it was for me. And I just thought, “Well, if it makes me feel worse, or if it doesn’t help, I can always stop taking it.” And then I took it. And in one night, the first night, I got hours of really sound sleep and I woke up feeling like a different person and feeling so hopeful. And then, within weeks, one symptom after another just improved significantly. It was remarkable to me. And then I felt even more compelled and passionate about exploring the conversation with women about what's available to them.
Anne: The reason we named our company Alloy is because it means “a fusion of elements for strength and protection,” because it was our experience that everyone we knew was taking supplements, going to like a nutritionist or a chiropractor or a yoga instructor who was advising them on mitigating inflammation with nutrition, right. But they weren't necessarily telling their doctors, their general practitioners. They were just going to them for their annual check-ups or whatever. And it seemed like the two sides were not speaking to one another. It sounds like you’ve been able to marry the two. Why do you think that's so hard for women? Or why do you think that either side of the industry is like that?
Rachel: Unfortunately, I think there is a lot of appropriate backlash. There's an apt argument to be had on both ends of the spectrum. I think it has to be very frustrating for Western medical practitioners to look at some functional medicine practitioners who say “Just do this and get rid of cholesterol, or just do this and your ‘markers’ will change.” I imagine that sounds particularly absurd to a Western medicine practitioner, especially because we live in a world where most people won't or cannot adhere to very strict functional medicine recommendations. And on the flip side, I’ve heard from functional medicine practitioners who feel rightfully fed up. And many of them come from the world of Western medicine and felt it was largely lacking. Many would say things like, “What do you mean you're not telling your diabetic patients they don't have to dramatically change their diet?” And that's absolutely fair and appropriate. And I don't think it's conspiratorial to say that there are industries from agriculture to pharmaceuticals that really do benefit from many of us, most of us, suffering. So we take all of that, that opposition and lack of regard for each side of a coin, and bring it into a conversation about women's health, which by and large hasn't been openly conversed about, ever, and it can be even stickier and sometimes messier.
All of that being said, I do think that it's helpful that there’s a changing dynamic happening between doctors and their patients, often encouraged by physicians actually! I’m hearing from more doctors, not just specific to the reproductive health space, but brain, cardiovascular, metabolism, sleep specialists, who want to hear from their patients and come up with sound, reasonable, broader approaches, lifestyle approaches, to obtaining and sustaining relief to what ails patients. More physicians are saying, “I need to hear from you about how you're doing, because that better informs not only our dynamic but also how I can help you.” So, I think we're in this period of transition and it's going to take more time. I know that our daughters will have an easier time than we have had.
What we eat matters and how much sleep we get matters. And hearing it from a functional medicine practitioner or your grandmother shouldn't be the point. Old wives tale advice has lasted because it has truth to it in many ways. Not all of it, but a lot of it. And at the same time, Western medicine can be miraculous and really can really help people get over enormous hurdles. It has its place and we shouldn't shy away or be afraid of it.
Anne: Can you tell me more about what you’ve learned about nutrition, and food, and how it affects our health?
Rachel: There are lots of people who don't like the expression “food is medicine.” I don't agree. I think it can be enormously impactful and medicinal to our health. I think we know this intuitively, but we’re human so we resist things. We know, if we have children say, that when we load them up with refined sugar, it’s a really bad idea, right? And it's not just because they won't eat their dinner or because it's bad for their teeth. It's also because of the mental | emotional reaction that they have. They have a physiological response to all of that sugar and they get hyper, and then maybe there's a crash and there's a meltdown and it's a whole event, often in the grocery aisle where maybe we’ve pacified our kids because we took them shopping when they were hungry and gave them “a treat” to just get out of the market in less time. They can’t help it and we can see what happens to them in response to all of that candy, or soda, or whatever. Well, why should we think that that kind of eating impacts us, adults, any less? We may not start screaming in the produce aisle, but we may feel anxiety or irritability or anger after we’ve downed that diet soda or bag of candy or 3rd glass of wine. We all need food to live, and it has an impact on everything about us, every aspect of our well being. It’s not everything we require, but it's a lot. I’ve been lucky enough to watch people and help people become nutritionally educated enough to support their own health and longevity and I know food plays an enormous part. So does rest and sleep and stress mitigation, and exercise and community and creativity and culture and medicine!
Anne: You seem to me, on Instagram, like the healthiest person on the planet, always doing the right thing. You move every day. It seems to me you're really good. Whenever I come across your posts, I think, Oh yeah, I should hydrate. Or I should work out. So what are your health habits that work for you?
Rachel: Well, first, I did not always live this way. I was a dancer in a much younger life so I think there’s a level of discipline and an approach to the body that was instilled in me. And by the way, it was not always a healthy one! But I truly am impacted and influenced by both sides of my family who have lived with, and died from, chronic health conditions. Diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease. That really informs me. I really want to try to not go through things that I've seen others go through. That being said, I’m sure I've tried every nutritional protocol or “diet,” from Weight Watchers to eating solely Raw, Intermittent Fasting, Blood type diet, DASH diet, Vegetarian, Anti-inflammatory, Whole 30…I mean, you name it, I have likely tried it. What I learned both from myself and working with others is that, barring any medical condition that requires you conform to a specific diet, you MUST turn inward and figure out what works for you, what works for you in all regards, everything from: your response to starchy carbs to your emotional state of mind after eating certain foods, your desire to cook, your family make up, the culture of your kitchen, your finances, your access to a great market, your goals, your hormones, your relationship with food…it all matters and it will factor into what you choose to eat and why.
And in working with women as I have, I became very sensitive to the fact that what works for “Sally” is not necessarily what's going to work for “Lisa.” And that all has to do with a lot of things, from age to fitness level to chronic conditions, whatever it is, right? So I share the things that I do, not as a fitness instructor or as a nutritionist or anything else, but really just to sort of remind people that moving at all, is “the thing,” eating more plants is “the thing,” hydrating, with water is “the thing.” The simple things. It’s the simple things, consistently, over time, that matter and are sustainable and reasonable and meaningful to one’s health.
So, for me, I have learned that I feel best when I’ve consumed a lot of leafy green plants, fish and seafood, eggs, seeds, not so much nuts, very little dairy and not cow’s milk dairy, things that help me feel alert, energized, fluid. Red meat, poultry, starchier plants and dairy tend to cause me to feel sluggish and although I enjoy it, I don’t want to FEEL that way, so I tend to make other choices more often. Greek yogurt is a terrific protein source for many but it causes ME to feel too dense, so, here, what might work terrifically for someone else…there’s a ton of emphasis on how foods might cause us to LOOK but I don’t think we think enough about how foods cause us to FEEL. It’s really informative to spend time considering this. Take alcohol, for example. Midlife women, peri/meno people are often talking about lowering their alcohol intake because “suddenly it makes me feel crappy.” Or, “I don’t sleep if I drink…” We respect these feelings when they’re dramatic but not so much otherwise, and I’m saying our bodies are feeling things all the time in response to what we consume, whether we realize it or not.
Water is always my drink of choice. Green tea, coffee, Kombucha. In the morning, I have black coffee. I am not, personally, a fan of intermittent fasting. I know people love it. If it works for you, by all means. I go pretty hard in the gym most days and I don't feel as ready to move my body and push myself if I'm not fueled. So breakfast is often a smoothie or oats with some kind of hormone friendly seed like hemp or chia or flax seeds, some berries made with a nut milk.
Some mornings I’ll have a chia pudding, sometimes eggs, I don't make it complicated. Did you want these kind of details?
Anne: Yes! I think it's really interesting to hear what exactly people do!
Rachel: Okay, well for lunch, half of my plate will be vegetables. Today I had spinach, I had a few sliced strawberries. I had a quarter cup of chickpeas, a lemon vinaigrette and a quarter of an avocado. I'm constantly considering protein, fiber, and healthy fat. Coconut milk and coconut oil are fine, but it's actually not the best healthy fat you can have. Olives, avocados are ideal. A quarter of my plate is protein, a quarter of it is a healthy fat, and half of it is vegetables. And primarily leafy greens. I eat meat, but not that often. Maybe a couple of times a month. Same with poultry. Fish, as I said, is my animal protein of choice. I just do better with it. I digest it better. I feel more vibrant with that protein choice. And then dinner is often much like lunch. It might be eggs. Tonight it's fish.
Anne: Does your husband eat the same as you?
Rachel: He does. He always consumes more. He's a bigger person, but it does make it easy. I'll throw seeds on top of a salad or like tonight I roasted salmon with sliced red onion and fennel and made a lemon vinaigrette. And Luke will have that with brown rice or pasta. I'll skip that.
I indulge, I'm not dogmatic about being healthy. That’s my entire point! There truly must be a balance, especially this time of life. In midlife we should feel confident in the freedom to enjoy what we will. That being said, we should also have rational, reasonable information about best choices to help live a dynamic, full life.
Anne: Can I ask you a little more about the alcohol thing?
Rachel: It was not sitting well with me. It was ramping up hot flashes. This was before MHT, but it was wild and honestly, I don’t feel the desire to drink anymore. I was never really into it but when I moved out to the suburbs, it was like a wine tasting everywhere I went! That lasted for a while but now…you know, it was such a dramatic shift, “pre”-perimenopause and now, one glass of wine and I have an immediate headache. I feel really sluggish, foggy-brained, emotionally “blue.” Who needs it? I'd rather have a piece of cake.
Anne: What do you think has changed most as you've hit this stage of life, and what do you like the best about being at this stage of life?
Rachel: I'm a lot more forgiving and empathetic of both myself and others. I don't think I thought of myself as being a judgmental person, but I think I was, and I recognize that now because I'm much more compassionate than I used to be. I think many people say, “I don’t worry about what people say anymore…I don’t give a sh*t about this or that anymore.” And there’s a lot of truth to that for me as well but also, I’m often checking in with myself more, questioning my behavior, both past and present and always striving to do and be better. So, perhaps it’s an “I don’t give a sh*t about the stuff I never needed to give a sh*t about in the first place,” but I do care more about being a good person and what being so makes me feel.
I’m really proud that I’ve learned how to establish appropriate boundaries in all of my relationships. That’s taken a lot and it continues to be a place where I need to remain conscious, but it’s not like it was and that makes me happy. The saying, “yes or no,” when I really wanted to say the other…I’ve evolved and we always should be doing so, I think and that segues into my thoughts about my mortality. I think about the stamp I'm leaving, if any, and what that looks like. I’m just a nobody in the world but it still matters to me that I have been decent, a good friend, partner, daughter, mother…I’m aiming for grandmother, maybe even great-grandmother, hence the healthy living thing!
Go ahead, you deserve to