how to be well

Ever feel completely, cell-achingly exhausted, and at an utter loss why? Dr Karen Coates and Sharon Kolkka – a power duo in health and wellness – are here to help. Their co-authored guide, How to Be Well, is for women of any stage of life who want to rediscover vitality and empower themselves in their everyday health and self-care. Read our Q&A with them below.

How did the two of you meet and what made you decide to write a book together?

We met as doctor and patient. Sharon was deeply involved in the health retreat world with a passion for helping women to feel better physically and emotionally and was at the coal face of this in her daily job. Meeting Karen she found a like-minded woman, who happened to be a doctor, which at the time seemed unusual as her medical approach was steeped in preventative medicine. Dr Karen acknowledged complementary therapies such as naturopathy and herbal, nutritional medicine and this provided a common connection for us to become colleagues and friends. Together we found we had a passion to help women navigate their hormonal and lifestyle challenges as they age. Eventually we knew we had to share this knowledge with a wider community and hence How to Be Well emerged.

What were the joys and challenges of writing collaboratively?

This was a labour of love! We experienced so much joy sharing this project together. We laughed and at times groaned at the research, yet there was never a time where we disagreed because we knew and trusted each other’s perspective and wisdom. Each of us brought a different flavour to the process. We fed off each other. Any challenges were associated with what to remove from the content as there is so much more to say and we probably could have kept writing!

This book is dedicated to your daughters. Were you thinking of them and the new world of healthcare for women (old and young) in writing this book?

We are both very close to our daughters who are in their 30’s and living vital lives. We observe them as the next generation and applaud their approach to this very busy modern world. Both excel in their chosen fields, yet more importantly both are living unashamedly authentic lives. They can be strong and vulnerable and how they navigate their life challenges is inspiring. We are blessed to share unconditional love with our children and we both agree they are so much wiser than we were at their age. What we have witnessed through them, and their friends is an active life with far more work/personal life balance than we chose. Even though we are their mothers, we also know they (and their friends) will benefit from the education in the book.

You both have decades long and esteemed careers in healthcare. I imagine you have been witness to, and part of, a shift in the healthcare’s relationship to women’s minds and bodies. From your perspective, what have been the most significant changes?

There has been a people-driven demand for doctors and specialists to provide a more preventative approach to their advice, rather than an exclusively pharmaceutical option. Although sometimes resisting this change, with the explosion of research in the integrative medicine arena, doctors are now more accepting this evidence is strong. They understand they may be held accountable by their patients if they don’t consider the power of lifestyle intervention in health maintenance. In fact, some medical specialists now believe that if lifestyle is not part of the conversation in a consultation, the doctor is out of touch with the current evidence on best practice for patient care.  With the public’s accessibility to ‘Dr Google’ the evidence that was previously only available to doctors, is now freely available to the savvy patient. Doctors now need to be the interpreter for a patient who attends with a research paper in hand.

We have seen a shift in perspective accepting complementary care (Naturopathy, Chinese and Herbal Medicine, counselling for example) combined with medical options. We have also witnessed restorative practices such as meditation and yoga, moving to mainstream acceptance of their benefits. The flow on effect is there is mass accessibility to these supportive modalities.

What about women’s healthcare hasn’t changed that frustrates you?

The medicalisation of women’s hormonal symptoms that then demands an exclusive pharmaceutical option as a solution yet may not always be the best option.

Some would say wellness is a bit ‘woo-woo’ of a term and has been co-opted by the Gwyneth Paltrow, charlatan gurus with false-prophet pseudoscientists of the world. How do you define wellness and why is it a worthwhile pursuit for individuals?

Wellness is a word that defines more than just an absence of disease. It is a word used to consider lifestyle practices that can either support or irritate the health of a human. It includes evidence-based research that defines how nutrition, movement, thoughts and emotions and the chemicals and toxins we encounter daily, impact human health.

We agree that this word is used by many, including savvy marketers to capture the trend of the word ‘wellness’. As such, there is almost ‘wellness washing’ and the industry itself still has much to do to remain based in evidence and to try and ensure the word is used authentically. Sadly, this means the consumer needs to apply the process of critical thinking to see through charlatan elements and sort the ‘wheat from the chaff’.  We hope our book will arm them with evidence-based information to help them in this process.

Your book hopes to address and combat what you both perceive as an exhaustion epidemic, which is affecting women in particular. While there are ways in which women can empower themselves and support each other to lead a more vital, energetic, and rewarding life, it doesn’t seem quite fair that the responsibility should be on individuals or even small collectives, when so much of what is exhausting is the result of the systemic wider structural gender imbalances. Do you see women’s wellness the responsibility of society at large too?

There is both a social and individual responsibility here. Social and political change is often driven by the masses, so advocacy for women’s health on a political level is important.

How to Be Well addresses the responsibility of the individual to make healthy lifestyle choices around what we define as the Five Pillars of Wellness.

The contribution of your genetics to the risk of chronic medical disease is only 25 percent. Hence it is the lifestyle choices we make every day that determine both longevity and the quality of health as we age. How to Be Well provides both the ‘How to’, and the ‘Why” and supports women to make better choices around nutrition, movement, emotional wellbeing and stress management. We do acknowledge that it is often cheaper to eat unhealthy food, and this is something that can be addressed at a government level. We encourage women to make a statement with their household dollar and demand more access to good quality food – this is a birthright of the country.

If you are a white, wealthy, young and able-bodied cis woman, you have a better chance to avoid the stressors that others may be subject to, and to achieve sustainable wellness goals. How do we make wellness more accessible to all women?

Education is the key to reducing the inequality here. This is a journey that transcends generations. Part of the reason for writing this book was to share information with those that are unable to afford the time or means to attend a dedicated wellness retreat where wellness information is readily available.

Have you adjusted your daily routines or personal wellness programs after writing this book together, and why?

Yes. After a nasty injury, Sharon experienced the symptoms of depletion and is still working on her path back to thriving. This highlights that thriving is fragile and through no fault of their own, an accident or change in social circumstances affects a woman’s wellbeing status. Having this book helps women recalibrate as circumstances change. Like Sharon, we encourage women and empower them to take great care of themselves, to prioritise their wellbeing and enable them to manage the daily stresses of life and changing social landscapes. This has never been more important given the current pandemic that has affected the world’s population. If you have no gas in your tank, you cannot go anywhere.

What do you see as the biggest enemies of women’s wellness in Australia right now?

The influence of the pseudoscience and health fads designed and marketed to make money and that target the vulnerable. Again, this strikes at the heart of the need for education to empower women to make sound decisions based on logic and science.

On an individual level, unrelenting stress is the saboteur of women’s wellness. Stress directly impacts women’s hormonal balance and fertility. The universal elevation of stressors over the past few years triggers our anciently wired stress response designed to reduce fertility in times of high stress. Our bodies read this stress as potential catastrophic drought, famine, or war – a disastrous time to be pregnant. Beyond fertility this stress will also affect gut health, sleep and, of course, relationships.

How to Be Well: A handbook for women by Karen Coates and Sharon Kolkka was published in March 2022 by Simon & Schuster. Find copies at Roaring Stories Bookshop Balmain.