For Leigh Winters, true health starts by having nothing to hide
Neuroscientist and natural beauty expert on toxicity, bioaccumulation, and why she believes our health depends on choosing 100% natural.
For the first in our series of “Nothing to Hide” stories, we connected with Leigh Winters, someone who is incredibly passionate about natural wellness. She has made it her life’s work to study the effects our everyday choices are having on the health of our minds and bodies. Leigh shares how her own choice to use only all-natural products started with an undiagnosable illness, and a recovery that started after she changed her lifestyle to natural. Learn more about Leigh @leighmwinters.
Many of us have heard the idea that true healing comes from nature. And even if we understand that to be true, it can still be hard to live a life where choosing natural is the norm. If anyone understands how hard it is to switch up your self-care routine with safer body care products, it’s me.
Although today I choose only natural products, it wasn’t until I got very sick at 21 that I took a deeper look at the connection between what I was putting on my body and my well-being.
From graduate work to gravely ill
It all started when I was in graduate school at Columbia University, studying neuroscience and clinical psychology. I had traveled to Kerala, India to conduct my thesis research on spirituality and contemplative practice in integrative health -- and mysteriously became very ill. I was so sick that I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to feel healthy again. I had insomnia, sudden-onset muscle weakness (which meant I could barely stand), troubled skin, and an overall declining bill of health.
When I got back to New York City, I visited numerous doctors, but the best they could tell me was that my vague, difficult-to-diagnose symptoms hadn’t been caused by anything I had eaten or done while I was away. With each passing day, heavy dread set deeper into my soul as top doctors continued to be baffled by my case, and I continued to feel sick.
When I spoke with doctors, they were sympathetic yet perplexed. My voice quivered, my eyes welled up with hot tears, and I had even more trouble sleeping – I couldn’t believe what was happening to me and couldn’t believe there was no answer.
The natural road to recovery
Since traditional biomedical services were letting me down, I took it upon myself to try and bring my bodily systems back into harmony. I turned to natural, essential oil solutions for sleep, I started eating more mindfully, I got into a workout regimen, and I swapped out my beloved, but toxic products for natural ones that nourished my mind, body, and soul.
At first I thought my symptoms were jet-lag, but as the days went on, I still couldn't get a wink of sleep. I tried natural melatonin, I tried reading until my eyes were dry, but the only thing that worked was diffusing and inhaling essential oils.
In India, rose and sandalwood oils were aplenty, so I started integrating those into my skin and body care as well. Later, I learned that both rose and sandalwood are energetically powerful oils that not only work with the physical body, but also with the emotional healing process. Taking an aromatic, essential oil-based approach to get back to better sleep was somewhat of a last resort; however, it proved the only natural modality that worked for me.
This healing journey with aromatherapy proved so groundbreaking that it catapulted my studies into olfaction and how certain aromas possess different therapeutic benefits. Some say what I experienced was just placebo, but the research tells a different story-- it's been clinically demonstrated that certain aromas induce physiological change in the body and brain.
My muscle weakness was arguably the most frightening part of my illness: I would wear out after simple activities, like walking on the beach. While the cause is still (unfortunately) a medical mystery, I know that taking better care of my body, both what I put in it and on it, positively affected my health.
Just six months after returning home and implementing my new routine of using only natural self-care products, my symptoms neatly all vanished. The interesting part of my story is that I was more regimented about using clean products than I was about my diet (this is the truth!).
What I realized is that our bodies are an open and resilient system, where each bodily system is interconnected. Some doctors thought I might be showing symptoms of an autoimmune disorder; others thought it might be a serious blood virus, but all the tests came back ‘normal.’ It could simply have been that my muscle fatigue was my body's way of letting me know its systems were out of balance. I learned that our bodies respond to love, so when mine tells me something, I've learned to drop everything and listen.
At first, I thought my skin was out of sorts from lots of traveling and lack of sleep. But looking back, my skin was reflecting the inner chaos of my body, and my usual glow was marred by breakouts and dryness. I learned that my body was not optimally absorbing vitamins and minerals, which turns out to be somewhat of a modern epidemic.
The lack of nutritional absorption meant that my already-sensitive skin was even more intolerant of the synthetic products I was using. Previously, I would use harsh scrubs and parfum-based products on my face and wonder why it would get inflamed and itchy. Since changing up my facial skincare routine, I've found that less is more to enhance my glow.
When I started using natural products, my once chronically dry skin began to look healthier. Using all-natural face and body products, my skin retained more moisture and I was staying more hydrated throughout the day and night. My skin was glowing.
It all adds up: bioaccumulation in the body
I was so intrigued by my recovery that I dove deeper into the science of ingredient formulation, bioaccumulation, and toxicity in the body. I became so fascinated with cosmetics and the toxicity of products that it has become my life’s work.
Until I got sick, I was like many people: unaware that most of my daily beauty and self-care products were riddled with toxins. Unfortunately, less than 20% of the chemicals in many of our everyday products like body lotions, makeup, shampoo and more, are assessed for safety. Even worse, many contain ingredients that are clinically-demonstrated carcinogens, neurotoxins, and reproductive toxins that deposit in the body and add up over time (bioaccumulation)—just from daily use.
Ingredients like parabens, phthalates, fragrance, and petrochemicals can lead to hormonal imbalances and inflammation that can manifest as dermatological and internal health issues. Over time, these products may wreak havoc on the long-term functioning of the immune system.
A passion for (no) parfum
My passion and current area of research is studying fragrance and its effects on our physical body and brain. When we see ‘fragrance’ on a label, what does it mean? Technically, fragrance is a mishmash of undisclosed chemicals that gives a product its aroma. While it’s lovely to smell like strawberry cheesecake or a vanilla cupcake, the sad truth is that many of the chemicals used in traditional scent formulation are hazardous to your health.
By law, “fragrance” and “parfum” are protected under trademark secret, which means that consumers are left in the dark about what is actually in their cleansers, body washes, lotions, and more. As if being told only half the story about what you’re truly putting on your body isn’t scary enough, fragrance is associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory conditions, and reproductive issues.
Fragrance is essentially unavoidable, unless you choose products that are truly formulated with only natural ingredients. In fact, Saje was one of the first commercial brands that offered an alternative to the detrimental ingredient that is “fragrance”. To this day, Saje has been unwavering in their commitment to natural ingredients.
It’s time for natural to shine
After decades of largely unconscious use of topical products, it’s time for a paradigm shift. As consumers, we have a powerful voice that can help shift the paradigm to make natural the new normal. The European Union has banned more than 1,300 chemicals from use in cosmetic products. But compare that to the US, which has only banned about 30. We must demand better.
Now, more than ever, there is a demand for natural products from transparent brands, but it can still be difficult to know where to begin. To find unbiased, reliable data on ingredients and products, check out the EWG’s Skin Deep Database.
Whenever you buy, make sure those brands have nothing to hide. And remember that small changes can have a big impact: you don’t need to swap out everything all at once. Take a step towards natural and I promise you won’t be disappointed by the results. When switching all-natural products, you just might be surprised how your body begins to heal and feel.
You can find Leigh on Instagram @leighmwinters, where you can follow her journey towards natural, from a scientific perspective. And, if you read my story and identify with it, I want to hear from you.
What’s your Nothing to Hide story? Head to @sajewellness and share why you’re making the switch to 100% natural, 100% of the time.
Leigh Winters is a neuroscientist and natural beauty expert. She currently works at a California-based biotechnology company focused on offering advanced, science-based treatments for chronic dermatologic conditions. Previously, Leigh served as a fellow at Columbia University’s Spirituality Mind Body Institute, where she clinically researched contemplative practices, like yoga and mindfulness meditation, and biobehavioral health.
Leigh is a sought-after certified aromatherapist and teacher of meditation, aromatic plant medicine, and all-natural beauty formulation. Leigh regularly writes about and hosts workshops on the brain, behavior, and plant medicine. She has been featured in NBC News, Vogue, Well+Good, and more.