Podcast: Erin Stokes, ND, on Natural Health Strategies and the Role for Dietary Supplements

Podcast: Erin Stokes, ND, on Natural Health Strategies and the Role for Dietary Supplements

MegaFood’s medical director addresses nutrient density and soil health, mood and the microbiome, and underserved women’s health issues.

By Sean Moloughney, Editor03.21.23
At Expo West 2023 in Anaheim, CA, we sat down with Erin Stokes, a naturopathic doctor, educator, and mom who lives with her family in Boulder CO.

Stokes is the medical director for MegaFood, the Certified B Corporation that’s celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. She spearheads the health and wellness education movement at MegaFood to empower people to change their lives and help grow healthy communities.

At Expo West we discussed gut health, stress, women's health—including MegaFoods’ new Women's Ensemble product line—soil health, and much more.

If you want to learn more, if you have feedback, or want to suggest a topic or expert, you can email us at nutraceuticals@rodmanmedia.com

Links & Resources:

MegaFood’s Women’s Ensemble: Mood Reset and PMS Support

What's a Certified B Corp?

The transcript below has been edited slightly for clarity and brevity.

Sean Moloughney, Editor, Nutraceuticals World (NW): I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about what attracted you to naturopathic medicine.

Erin Stokes, ND, Megafood Medical Director: Absolutely. I grew up in a medical family. My dad's a retired orthopedic surgeon. My grandfather was an orthopedic surgeon, and so I grew up around medicine; but for me, I really chose a different path.

I believe that bringing together nature and science is really fundamental. From a young age I was very interested in plants and the power of the body to heal. The combination of nature and science and pursuing a path that really supported the whole person and the body's innate ability to heal was right for me. It was a lot about being exposed to medicine from an early age, but realizing that there was another way of looking at health and healing.

That being said, I strongly believe in integrative medicine, and I do believe that conventional medicine absolutely has its place. But I get really excited about sharing with people the possibilities that go beyond that—around lifestyle, nutrition, herbal medicine, the power of plants, and how you can bring that into your everyday life.

NW: As a doctor, what's your assessment of the role food and supplements should play in healthcare versus the role that they actually do today?

Stokes: As a naturopathic doctor and a mom and an educator, I believe in food first. Some people find that surprising since I’m the director of education for a supplement company. But the fact of the matter is that the primary source of our vitamins and minerals should absolutely come from the food that we eat. One of the main things that I love to do is educate people about the power of food and different foods to fill nutrient gaps.

We know, though, that even if people do their best to eat really well, gaps in the diet are widespread. We have Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data that show nutrient deficiencies in vitamin D, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, even good old vitamin C. There are millions of Americans deficient in these vitamins, and so I always start from the foundation of food first, but then an acknowledgement that, for a multitude of reasons, we're not eating the food that our grandparents were eating.

For example, if you look at soil health and nutrient density, I do believe that supplements play a role. Starting with a high-quality multivitamin to fill gaps in the diet—that's one of the first places I start. What I like to share with people is the intersection of the food they're eating, the way they're living their lives, and the the appropriate role of supplements.

NW: I want to come back to soil health, because that's a big and important issue. But I want stay on education for a minute. We live in the era of information overload.

Stokes: Yes, we sure do.

NW: What are the biggest challenges you face in educating people about health and nutrition and the role of supplements in the diet?

Stokes: I think the biggest challenge is—you really put your finger on it—is that people are completely overwhelmed with information. So I see it as my job to make what I'm sharing with people compelling, interesting, simple, and actionable. People are given so much information, but not how to act on it, or the inspiration to do anything.

Part of my mission statement is to provide people with the knowledge in a simple way, and the inspiration. Those two in tandem are super important—to have both the information, and also the inspiration to say, ‘Yes, I want do this. I want to include,’ for example, ‘these food sources of iron in my diet,’ or ‘I want to find a new way of living my life.’ And to do that, you have to be compelling and inspiring.

NW: Can you talk more about the state of soil health today, how it’s changed over time and why, and what the implications are for the nutritional value of food that we eat?

Stokes: Our agriculture efforts have been focused on getting the most yield out of our land that we can—so basically using our land to get the most we can extract from it. You can look at soil as a living organism. It's full of microbes and it's a whole environment. What we found is that our soil has become depleted over time. That's not just something that we say, there's actual data.

There's a USDA study that came out of the University of Texas at Austin that showed that crops from 1950 to 1999 showed a decrease in nutrient values. That's in part because we're not caring for the soil. Now we know there are regenerative agriculture practices; and part of what we do with our Healthy Farm Standard is that we partner with farmers all over the country to work together to have practices that support soil health.

NW: Do you think there's more recognition today about regenerative agriculture, what that means, and better adoption of those practices?

Stokes: Yes and no. Within our industry and within the farming community, there definitely is an increase in both interest and understanding of regenerative agriculture.

A big part of my role is about educating people out in the world, consumers, everyday folks. Among those people, we've actually seen that a lot of people don't know what regenerative agriculture means and find the term confusing. So it's another opportunity for us to help provide clarity for people around what it actually is.

NW: I wonder if you could talk about the importance of gut health, and explain the gut brain access, which we hear a lot about lately; and our current understanding of the microbiome, which is a big buzzword, but there seems like a lot of potential in that realm.

Stokes: I'll start with the microbiome. The microbiome is really our own community; I call it our personal garden. It's as unique as your fingerprint. So your microbiome and my microbiome are completely different. And it's made up of so many organisms that are influenced by lifestyle factors, primarily our nutrition.

For example, a fiber-rich diet, vegetable-rich diet is really good for supporting a healthy microbiome. It's also influenced by factors such as medication use, our stress levels—and what we know is that a lot of the same neurotransmitters that are in our brain actually exist in our gut, like serotonin.

I think that we intuitively know this because of phrases like, ‘I got butterflies in my stomach,’ or ‘I had a gut feeling.’ Those didn't just come out of thin air. They're based on people's real experience of that gut-brain connection. So, although I can't necessarily comment definitively on it, there's more and more coming out around how, for example, our mood may be influenced by the health of our microbiome.

Think about it as your own personal community of both the good bacteria and the bad bacteria. I say it’s like our personal garden and a lot of people seem to get that. It's going to have some different bugs in it, and it needs to be cared for, just like a garden. It needs to be nourished and cared for.

NW: You mentioned stress. Everybody seems stressed out these days. Do you have tips for managing stress and hardship today, especially among young people. I've seen a lot of statistics about how much stress and burnout people are dealing with these days.

Stokes: Yes. I have a personal interest in the health of our youth. I have a 16-year-old son and he and his group of friends have faced unprecedented stress by going through the COVID pandemic during their adolescence, combined with social media pressures.

The first thing that comes to mind around stress is the importance of connection. We talk a lot about how we're more connected than ever through, for example, social media platforms, but there's also a lot of disconnection. The power of connection, particularly in-person connection—there are studies that show loneliness is at an epidemic level and that loneliness can be one of the most damaging things to our long-term health. Starting with that, connecting with people in person, is really powerful.

Then how you live your life, your daily habits, are essential. Starting your day by either getting outside or even a short meditation practice. For some people meditation feels out of reach, but I recommend people start with as little as 5 minutes a day.

One thing I think that’s really undervalued that very much connects with stress is sleep and the importance and power of sleep. It's also been shown that we're sleeping a lot less than prior generations, and so I often say that your journey to a good night's sleep begins from the moment you wake up.

It has a lot to do with how we're living our days. I'm a big believer in the power of getting outdoors and the power of nature. That is something that I think is important for both stress and sleep.

NW: Women have been underrepresented in research and their health needs have been underserved. Can you talk about how MegaFood is addressing that? And what areas of health should companies focus on when it comes to meeting women where they are?

Stokes: It's true that women have historically been underrepresented and underserved in terms of meeting their specific needs. One of the things that MegaFood has done is we've launched a new line of supplements specific for women called Women's Ensemble.

The two that we have currently are mood support, which features a saffron extract, and then PMS support, very specifically designed for women, that includes chaste tree berry.

Acknowledging the unique health challenges and opportunities for women, and then making sure that we're designing and developing products that meet those needs, it's very important.

NW: Erin, thanks so much.

Stokes: Thanks, Sean. I appreciate the time. 
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