Why Reading Makes You Gorgeous: Truly Natural Practices for Timeless Beauty

“How long have you been using Botox?” the L.A. society lady asked my friend Ann.

Botox? Right. Ann barely wears make up on a regular basis.

I can understand the mistake. A few months shy of 50, Ann has great skin, a ready smile, and is in excellent shape. As I look around, I see a number of women with similar, simple, healthy beauty. Rather than the propped up and patched together appearance of a woman desperately trying to maintain her youth, these women make being gorgeous look easy.

And easy is always better.

As mentioned previously, I’m super lazy about beauty routines. If I’m in the middle of a good book there’s no way I’m going to get up out of bed to go put on eye cream, much less make an appointment to go get my skin peeled off. That said, I’m not interested in judging women who engage medical beauty processes. Women should do what they want to do. But if there are way cheap, painless ways to glean beauty out of our daily routines, I’m assuming Mud and Grace women want to know about them.

I’ve come to understand there are certain lifestyle investments in beauty that do far more than any expensive cream or treatment. Some digging has led me to identify the habits of the naturally beautiful. Some research has helped me to understand why these habits profoundly influence the way we look. Here are my findings.

Ann and Lynette, my health and beauty role models.

Beautiful habits

A quick study of the lifestyle choices that lead to beauty are as follows, in no particular order; sleep, read, go outside, eat well, enjoy what you eat, exercise, see your friends, be content.

That’s all doable, but why? What is going on in the pages of that book you’re reading that the most expensive skin creams just can’t deliver?

My research suggests that it all comes down to activities that manage our natural hormones and neurotransmitters. Bring on the oxytocin, the HGH and the endorphins, keep the cortisol at bay.

Natural maintenance

Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is the stuff our body produces to build muscle, burn fat, keep our skin elastic, generally grow and repair our bodies. It’s not big shock to anyone to learn that this decreases as we age. You could roll down to California, have synthetic HGH injected illegally, and enjoy the resulting side effects like growing extra long toes.

Or, you can increase the amount of HGH your own body releases regularly. Your pituitary gland (a little pea-sized thing, nestled deep in the back of your brain) secrets it throughout the day. Here are the conditions it needs:

Sleep

The release of HGH peaks while you are sleeping. Getting your nightly 7-9 hours is essential for optimum HGH production. It’s called beauty sleep for a very real reason. The release of insulin can interfere with the production of HGH, so avoiding foods with a high glycemic index (i.e. a whole lot of sugar) right before bedtime can be helpful.

Exercise

Weight training and regular, short, intense workouts promote HGH release. Long walks in the woods are great (more on them later) but to release HGH you need to feel the burn. I like to run sprints a couple of times a week, or just run up our hill really fast. A HIIT or a true Tabata workout on the exercise bike can do the trick nicely. Go on your long runs if you are so inclined, but a couple of short, fast workouts will help release your HGH.

This climbing trip was more exciting than a spa, and significantly cheaper…

Managing stress

You know how you look when you are stressed out? The exhausted, pinched expression on you face, that fabulous little grimace you carry around with you, the way you clench your fists and slouch without even realizing it? Such a good look, right?

When we experience stress, our body pumps out cortisol to prepare us for fight or flight. This would be awesome if we were actually face to face with a bear, but more often than not we’re stuck in traffic, or sitting in a long meeting as someone describes the grueling amount of work that will be added to your already unmanageable job. Long term elevated levels of cortisol lead to a whole host of ugly: weakened immune system, weight gain around the middle, deterioration of muscles, the list goes on. Basically, when your body is dealing with stress, it shuts down everything else: skin repair, hair growth, muscle building, reproductive systems, everything. So how can we deal with this stress?

Go outside

Being outside in nature boosts your mood. Researchers have yet to discover exactly why or how a walk among the trees, sagebrush, or prairie grass affects us, but there is conclusive evidence that time outdoors reduces anxiety and depression. Anything that reduces anxiety and depression is something all of us should be doing. You don’t need to go all Cheryl Strayed and hike the PCT on your own, just ten minutes makes a difference. Go get yourself a season appropriate coat and mud boots, then go take a walk.

Maybe it’s just nature’s beauty, rubbing off on us?

Read

Reading is one of the most relaxing activities humans can do. For many women, reading lowers your heart rate and relaxes your muscles faster than yoga or even meditation. That’s because reading is relatively easy, and twisting your body all up like a pretzel and concentrating on nothingness is really hard. Relaxation is key for health and beauty.

The best news about beauty reading? Any reading material works! A good novel, a nice dense history textbook, an exhaustive Vanity Fair article, even this blog! You’re welcome.

I’m getting in a beauty read AND developing a better understanding on the influence of Mongol occupation on the trajectory of Russian history.

Be content

Psychology has placed a lot of emphasis on happiness recently, but happy is a specific mood. Contentment is a lifestyle. Accepting the life you have built for yourself as positive, the people in your life for who they are, and yourself as you are is a mindset that takes practice. But honestly, it’s got to be easier than applying liquid eyeliner. That stuff is ridiculous.

Happy afternoon with husband? Check. Eyeliner? Not on this date.

See your friends

One late December night amidst frenzied holiday preparations, my friend Julie stopped by. Her life was also crazy, celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah with various sides of her family and heading in for knee surgery right in the middle of all of it. But for the 45 minutes we sat together, time pooled around us. We laughed and talked, other family members joined in and we discussed everything from Rouge One to the best peanut butter cookies available.

The calm I felt during her visit and for hours afterwards wasn’t due to the glass of wine I consumed. Being with friends lowers our cortisol levels. Humans are hard-wired to connect with others. Our oxytocin begins to flow with a hug hello, and endorphins follow as we laugh and talk. You know how beautiful you look in the pictures taken of you and your friends? It’s because literally make you glow, and all that cortisol is cut short by a good laugh and the comfort of companionship.

Hiking with friends? Way better than a bee-venom facial.

The key to it all – Eating well

Eating a healthy, whole food diet is good for your mood, your body, and the planet. Eating slowly, and enjoying a good meal with family, friends or the pleasure of your own company lowers stress and feeds the soul. We’ve got to drop the American, puritanical approach to eating, and enjoy good food.

But these days, with 60 million food gurus sending us conflicting messages about what to eat, it’s hard to know where to start. Here are some simple guidelines:

Eat food as close to whole as possible

Avoid ingesting any human-manipulated chemicals*

Eat plants, any plants**

Enjoy your food, and eat slowly

Don’t be weird about restricting food; just eat in moderation

For more on how crazy nutritionism has made us, check out Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food( http://michaelpollan.com/books/in-defense-of-food/)

Blackberries, butter, whole grain flour? Sounds like chemical-free, mostly plant, whole food to me.

True natural beauty can be summed up in the French phrase bien dans sa peau, to feel good in ones skin. This is deep state of satisfaction and comfort in ones’ self. A woman who feels good in her own skin is confident in the life she has chosen. She has accepted her own, particular beauty and does not long to be someone she isn’t. It’s a state of contentment that allows her to be generous with others, and with herself.

When I think about the women whose beauty I most admire, Lauren Hutton, Michelle Obama, Cameron Diaz, my sister-in-law Erika, my grandma, they all have this sense of comfort and confidence in their own particular bodies and with their individual, lovely faces. Can I suffer through reading a good book, enjoying a nice meal and taking a walk in the woods to get there? I’ll try.

My goat, feeling good in his own fur. Me, trying to learn from his example.

*A quick note on human-manipulated chemicals: we don’t know what they do. When transfat and high fructose corn syrup first came out, the food industry celebrated these modern miracles, cramming them into every corner of our diet. Fast forward a few years and they are the pariah of the grocery store. Who knows what miracle chemicals we will discover are harming us next? Recent studies suggest that artificial sweeteners are causing weight gain. http://time.com/3746047/diet-soda-weight-gain/ I figure, until we know more, I’m just going to skip as many human-manipulated chemicals as I can.

** OK, not poisonous plants or hallucinogenic plants, but all those other plants. Don’t be weird about carbs or nutrients or rainbows, just eat your veggies.