When Ann, a registered nurse and artist, was able to halt the autoimmune process in her body thanks to a combination of traditional and alternative treatments, she knew she had found her mission: helping others reclaim their health through education and coaching that focuses on the whole person.
Tell us a little about your background…
I am 51 years young and live in Evanston, Illinois, with my husband, David, and two of our three children: Elizabeth (17) and Colin (15) attend Evanston Township High School and Erik (20) is at Northwestern University.
I am from a big family and was raised on the west side of Cleveland, where we played outside all summer with big packs of kids and only went home for food or a Band-Aid. My mother was one of the first female chemists to work at NASA in Cleveland and my father was in sales—but his passions were philosophy and art.
In high school, I knew I wanted to pursue a career focused on keeping people healthy. Since wellness wasn’t really a developed field in the early ‘80s, I chose to go to nursing school. After graduating in 1986 with my BSN from Akron University in Ohio, I worked in pediatrics for two years then made good on my desire to work on the other end of health, keeping people from getting sick. I found a job as a nurse educator in a public Maternal Child Health clinic in a very diverse part of Cleveland; I loved it and made plans to get my Masters in Public Health (MPH) at UCLA.
In order to qualify for in-state tuition at UCLA, I took advantage of the nursing shortage of the late ‘80s, I took a job with a company that supplied temporary nurses to hospitals in California; they paid well and also covered my travel and apartment. A year later, I got a scholarship to UCLA’s School of Public Health and graduated in 1992 with an emphasis in Maternal Child Health (MCH) and Population studies.
I got a job right after graduation with the Los Angeles County Department of Health in the MCH department, coordinating a large project aimed at providing education and referrals to services for high risk pregnant and postpartum women. We trained local community health workers and organized teams of nurses, social workers, health educators, nutritionists, and community health workers. It was a wonderful model but would end up losing most of its funding.
I grew up with a father who had studied art at the Cleveland Institute of Art and was frequently painting on the weekends. I learned a lot from him and always wanted to pursue art. As soon as I finished my master’s degree, I started taking art classes in the evening and loved it.
In the meantime I met my husband, Dr. David Baker, who was also at UCLA pursuing a research fellowship and getting a master’s degree in public health. We had a wonderful courtship exploring the amazing natural landscape and wilderness of California. But we also experienced the Rodney King riots, the OJ Simpson trial, and the 1994 earthquake and decided this was just too much excitement for us; we headed to Atlanta, Georgia.
My husband’s career in academic medicine took us from Atlanta to Cleveland (my hometown) and then finally to Chicago in 2002, when he took a position as Chief of Internal Medicine at Northwestern University. We had three small children by then and, between the moves and the pregnancies, I was just too busy to think about working outside the home. We settled into a wonderful neighborhood in Evanston, just north of Chicago. As the kids got older, I was able to pursue my art more seriously and exhibited my still life paintings in a gallery in downtown Chicago and also participated in many local exhibits. To view my artwork, you can visit this link.
When did you think about making a change?
I knew that painting wasn’t my true purpose even though I loved it. While I had a moderate amount of success as an artist, I felt that if this were really what I was meant to do, more doors would be opening. There was a voice that was calling me back to the health arena. I missed the workplace and helping others, but I didn’t want to go back to nursing.
I have had digestive problems since I was a child and was diagnosed with lactose intolerance and Irritable Bowel Syndrome; yet symptoms persisted even after I cut out dairy. After my third child was born, I just never seemed to get my energy back and became very down, sluggish, and couldn’t think. Again, doctors didn’t know what was wrong, assuming I was just tired from having three kids under the age of six. When two of my kids were diagnosed with Celiac Disease, they ran tests on me—it’s a genetic illness—but my blood tests were mixed and my intestinal biopsy results were negative.
A few years later, at 42, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, an autoimmune condition. After this diagnosis, I tried eating gluten again (I’d stopped and it had helped), but I developed a horrible itchy rash, which my husband diagnosed as Dermatitis Herpataformis—a form of Celiac Disease after all.
What finally convinced you to take the plunge?
My health became more and more of an issue as my digestive problems continued and I never felt like my thyroid medicines were enough. At 47, I started having symptoms of a third autoimmune disease, Sjogren’s’ Syndrome, with dry eyes and swollen parotid glands. Around this time, my husband brought home an essay from the Journal of the American Medical Association, written by Dr. Terry Wahls from the University of Iowa. She was wheelchair bound with progressive MS (Multiple Sclerosis) and was able to put herself in remission through intensive nutrition, an exercise and muscle stimulation program, and intensive stress management and meditation. I was impressed and immediately began learning everything I could about what she did.
I have always had a passion for mind/body/health, yoga, spirituality, and healing. In fact, had we stayed in LA, I was planning on getting a Ph.D. in medical anthropology and studying traditional indigenous healing systems such as Ayurveda (from India), Chinese medicine, and Native American medicine healers.
For 25 years, my shelves have been filled with books about the mind-body-health connection—including the first books by Deepak Chopra and Dr. Bernie Siegel, pioneers in writing about the power of the mind and emotions in healing. I had practiced yoga since my early 20s and was always reading the latest on nutrition, exercise, and meditation. I did it out of self-interest, yes, but also out of intellectual curiosity. I find the topic of holistic health endlessly fascinating. My spiritual journey also has progressed as I have learned more about how everything is connected.
After adapting the principles Dr. Wahls described in her book to my own situation (intensive nutrition, discovering additional food intolerances, healing my gut, active stress management) and also trying acupuncture, and craniosacral therapy, I started to feel better and was able to improve my digestion, energy level, and mood; the symptoms of Sjogren’s Syndrome disappeared. My blood tests indicated that the autoimmune process was in remission. (I continue to take my thyroid medications and avoid gluten and other food triggers however.) I spent hours each day doing research and learned how much we can do to heal ourselves without medication.
As I began helping friends and family with their health, many of them suggested I make a career out of this. At the time, I was exhibiting my artwork but I started to look into wellness education or health coach training options. None of these programs seemed to be credentialed enough or seemed to fit with my training and background.
Did you have an “aha” moment?
A gifted craniosacral therapist I was working with told me she had the feeling that I wasn’t doing my soul’s work. She asked what came to mind and I knew immediately: I needed to work in holistic health.
I came home that day and searched for more programs for nurses and found the National Institute of Whole Health (NIWH), one of the first US programs in wellness education, with national accreditation as well. Their focus on the whole person fit with all my interests over the years. It emphasizes evidence-based health information and a behavior change model known as Behavioral Engagement. I talked with the program director, Dr. Georgianna Donadio, and knew instantly it was a perfect fit. I signed up within days.
The program lasted 18 months and included completing over 20 courses, a 4-hour final exam, and a 50-page paper. It was as intense as getting another master’s degree, but I loved every minute and was thrilled to witness the effectiveness of these methods during my practicum with clients.
What is your next act?
After graduating from NIWH, I received a Certificate in Whole Health Education and Coaching. At 50 years old, I started a health education and coaching business called Essence Health. My mission is to empower clients to reclaim their health in a loving and supportive way. I do that using Whole Health Education. I establish relationships that are based on mindfulness, respect, integrity, and acceptance. I meet clients where they are and guide them in achieving their health goals.
Whole Health Education encompasses the five essential aspects of an individual’s life that influence and affect the quality and function of a person’s health and personal fulfillment: physical, nutritional, environmental, mental/emotional, and spiritual. By understanding how these five aspects impact your health, wellbeing, purpose, happiness, and longevity, you can choose the best sustainable health behaviors and lifestyle choices for you. Frequently, the root cause of illness or imbalance is revealed.
Information and strategies are then given that address specific needs in all five aspects, drawing from both the conventional and alternative or natural health care systems. Making small changes in even one area can have a profound effect on a person’s health. I work with people on setting manageable goals and realistic strategies to ensure successful and sustainable changes.
My clients feel empowered knowing they are making health choices that are effective and aligned with their values and lifestyle. Finding the right diet, exercise plan, supplements, and meditation and relaxation practices results in improved health and vitality, lower stress, and confidence in reaching health goals.
What sets me apart from other health coaches is my background and training in nursing and public health. In addition to health education and coaching, I can help navigate and demystify health recommendations from both conventional medical and alternative health care providers. I empower clients by providing information explaining treatment plans and/or various modalities and how it relates to their condition and whole health. Clients then can choose what is best for them.
Most of my clients are women and men in the 40-60 year old range. Clients with the following issues have benefited from my services: hormonal imbalance, weight gain, stress due to major life transitions, autoimmune disorders, pre-diabetes, digestive issues, post-breast cancer lifestyle choices, managing Parkinson’s disease, fibromyalgia, osteoporosis and other chronic diseases.
I did an additional training with Dr. Sara Gottfried, author of the New York Times bestsellers, The Hormone Cure: Reclaim Balance, Sleep and Sex Drive; Lose Weight; Feel Focused, Vital, and Energized Naturally with the Gottfried Protocol and The Hormone Reset Diet: Heal Your Metabolism to Lose Up to 15 Pounds in 21 Days. As a certified Hormone Cure practitioner, I work with women on identifying what their hormonal imbalances are and natural ways of balancing them.
I also run an online functional medicine detox program twice a year. This has been hugely successful as every participant feels better, loses weight, and learns a tremendous amount about nutrition and the body’s natural detoxification pathways. It is based on a whole foods diet so there are no juice fasts or colonic cleanses. My next Detox starts on October 5th. Information is on my website.
I enjoy sharing information in the community about how people can get more energy, reduce brain fog, lose weight, and look and feel younger. I speak on many topics, including:
- It’s Not You, It’s Your Hormones: A look at the most common hormone imbalances and what you can do about them.
- Living longer, Living better: Extending your health span with smart lifestyle choices.
- It’s All About the Gut: How to enhance weight loss, mood, immunity, and overall health.
- Brain Health: Can Dementia be prevented?
How did you start your business? How are you building it?
I had to decide if I wanted to work in a physicians’ office or some other health setting or if I preferred to work on my own. I decided to start my own business to protect my flexibility and to have the freedom to practice how I was trained.
I took a few months after graduation to develop my website and referral partners. I used Wix.com as a platform and listened to the advice of some friends and family who had just hired a professional to redo their websites. I went on Etsy to find my logo designer, Amber84. A friend of mine, Donna Byrne of Pilates Central in Wilmette, Illinois, helped promote my programs from the start. I am currently building a network of other referral partners and my practice is growing week by week. I have beautiful office space now in Evanston above Northshore Pilates and Spa on Broadway two days a week and will be seeing clients in downtown Chicago as well at Holistic Health Practice. I can also work with clients at a distance through Skype and phone calls.
How accepting have your family and friends been of your work?
My family has been supportive of my work although may be less enthusiastic about my zeal for trying new vegetables! I believe my family’s health has improved along with my own. My hours are flexible so I am still able to be there when my kids need me but, as they are teens, they need me less and less, except of course when looking for a ride or spending money!
The funny thing about my husband is that I tried to get him to meditate and manage his stress when we were dating—you know how well that works when a girlfriend or wife tries to tell their spouse what to do; it doesn’t happen! He had to come to it on his own, which he has recently.
He was cautious about what I was learning at first because medical doctors are not trained in nutrition and get very little information about how the mind and feelings are connected to health. Much of the wellness information doctors learned and still give their patients is now outdated, such as eating a strict low fat diet. My husband is very supportive and has been impressed with how well my clients have done in situations where the traditional medical model was not working for them. I send him articles to read so we have good conversations.
I have some friends and family members who I can talk more in detail about holistic health but I accept people where they are at and don’t push my views unless someone asks or comes to me for advice or information. I am surprised at how many people I know who are seeking alternatives to conventional medicine. Holistic and alternative health is a huge economy!
What challenges have you encountered?
I am working to figure out what programs to offer based on what resonates with potential clients, as there are so many ways to go. I am also learning to market my services. And it can be a real challenge to run your own company and wear multiple hats at the same time. NIWH did provide a session with a business coach, which was helpful, but I have had to learn a lot on my own. I recently started working with a business consultant, Diane Testa of Koi Consulting. She is very knowledgeable and supportive and has helped me stay focused along with developing a mission statement and marketing plan.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
I think midlife is an ideal time to reinvent yourself. As the hormonal veil is lifted, you are left with just you and the choices you have made in your life. This is a great time to ask, honestly, “Am I happy with these choices?” I have learned that emotions are stored in the body—and the body doesn’t lie. So anything you haven’t faced will present itself as a manifestation in your body, mind, or spirit at menopause. The good news is that since everything is connected, making changes in one area affects and improves the whole. Finding your passion and connecting with your core is one of the keys to longevity and vitality. Passion is energy and energy is what creates health.
What have you learned about yourself through your own reinvention?
My healing journey mirrored my training. I have had to delve deep into each element of health and have learned a great deal along the way.
Physical: I learned how the root cause of many autoimmune illnesses is leaky gut. Finding out about food intolerances and gut infections is crucial to healing the gut. In addition, I had to actually exercise less in order to heal.
Emotional: I needed to be honest with myself about emotions that I was not expressing and past resentments that needed to be released. I always did yoga but I needed to take it to a much slower, mindful level, allowing myself to relax and my body to heal.
Environmental: I learned how toxins in our food, water, air, and personal products contribute to illness, brain fog, and hormonal imbalances. I have found a more natural way of living that energizes me.
Nutritional: I had to solve the puzzle of my digestion with whole organic foods and healing herbs. I have learned there is no one diet that fits everyone. The key is finding what works for you and maximizing your nutrients to meet your health goals. Being relaxed and mindful while eating is as important as what you are eating.
Spiritual: This is the core element as it encompasses your beliefs about yourself and your world, which influence your biology in a very direct way. I learned that it is not so much about how the world views me, but more about how I view my world and myself. I finally became disciplined about meditation and it has been an amazing experience leading me back to my heart and soul. I have learned how our minds, bodies, and spirits are not separate but rather are one essence. I also learned how we are connected to the earth by the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the water we drink, which is why it is so important to be mindful of what we are taking in. I have learned that we are all connected and, as this awareness grows, that it will be harder for us to continue to destroy our environment and to continue to solve our conflicts with violence. We are at a crucial point in our existence on this planet—what will we choose? Each choice we make every day is contributing to our health or illness, our planet’s health or illness. I am honored to be part of the solution helping people to make better choices and to find their true source of health—their Essence.
What resources do you recommend?
Powerfoods: Good Food, Good Health With Phytochemicals, Nature’s Own Energy Boosters by Stephanie Beling, MD
Perfect Health Diet: Regain Health and Lose Weight by Eating the Way You Were Meant to Eat by Paul Jaminet, PhD, and Shou-Ching Jaminet, PhD
It Starts With Food: Discover the Whole30 and Change Your Life in Unexpected Ways by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig
Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food by Catherine Shanahan, MD, and Luke Shanahan
The Wisdom of Menopause: Creating Physical and Emotional Health During the Change by Christiane Northrup, MD
The Immune System Recovery Plan: A Doctor’s 4-Step Program to Treat Autoimmune Disease by Susan Blum, MD, MPH
The Paleo Approach: Reverse Autoimmune Disease and Heal Your Body by Sarah Ballantyne, PhD
Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment–and Your Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Third Edition by Robert Sapolsky
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg
Staying Well With Guided Imagery by Belleruth Naparstek
Molecules Of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine by Candace B. Pert, PhD
Anatomy of the Spirit: The Seven Stages of Power and Healing by Caroline Myss, PhD
Healing and the Mind by Bill Moyers
The HeartMath Solution: The Institute of HeartMath’s Revolutionary Program for Engaging the Power of the Heart’s Intelligence by Doc Childre and Howard Martin
Vibrational Medicine: The #1 Handbook of Subtle-Energy Therapies by Richard Gerber, MD
Infinite Mind: Science of the Human Vibrations of Consciousness by Valerie Hunt, PhD
Wheels of Light: Chakras, Auras, and the Healing Energy of the Body by Rosalyn Bruyere
What’s next for you?
I am in a training program learning to use energy and vibrational healing to enhance what I am already doing. There is much science behind energy medicine and I am excited to be learning about what I believe will be an integral part of the future of health care.
Contact Ann Petrus Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org
My next online detox starts October 5: Sign up here!