“Healthy Habits” was an installment of Willows’ Raising Great Girls speaker series. Alejandra Berilla and Alison Lechner, DO, experts in the field of functional nutrition, discussed how to teach our daughters to take a proactive approach toward health in everyday decisions.
At Willows, we believe in an integrated and holistic education, encompassing our students’ academic, social, spiritual, and physical well-being. Fostering intentional decision-making in matters of bodily health not only helps prepare teenagers for the realities of adulthood, it is also necessary for their ability to focus and learn. It additionally encourages order and discipline in all areas of their lives and equips them to take better care of those around them.
Alejandra Berilla and Alison Lechner provided a unique perspective on the importance of holistic health as well as actionable advice on how to foster healthy habits in your family.
Alejandra Berilla was born and raised in Colombia where she received her DDS in general dentistry. After practicing for several years, she met her American husband and moved to the United States. Just two months later, she became pregnant and was diagnosed with B-Cell lymphoma. Fortunately, due to her health background allowing her to catch the disease early and other strokes of divine intervention, she was able to receive the treatment she needed. She began her chemotherapy while 17 weeks pregnant and completed the entire radiation process about one and a half years postpartum.
While her cancer was effectively beaten, she began to notice several concerning side effects. The radiation left her with multiple chemical sensitivities–everyday activities such as doing laundry or even sweating resulted in allergic reactions. Supplements and other dietary advice she took as a patient damaged her gut and depleted her energy.
As her family continued to grow, Alejandra became more and more passionate about feeding herself and her family in the optimal way to ensure their long-term health. But being new to the US and its culture, this proved to be quite a challenge.
This led her to delve deeply into modern holistic health practices and pursue more formal studies in the area of functional diet and nutrition, eventually becoming a certified functional nutrition coach. Since entering the field seven years ago, she has gone on to specialize in several functional diagnostic tools. Alejandra has a particular passion for supporting moms.
“We need moms who have energy and clarity of mind to build and shape the environment they want for their family,” she explains. “This starts with them taking a leadership role in their family ecosystem.
Currently, Alejandra sees clients on a 1-on-1 basis. The challenges she has had to face with her health have strengthened her faith. She is committed to preserving and prioritizing her time and energy for the benefit of her family and spiritual well-being. She is currently the mother of 5 children, 12 years and younger, including her oldest daughter who is a current Willows student.
Alison Lechner is also a mother of two daughters who attend Willows and one son. She is from Deerfield, Illinois, and has practiced family medicine for 15 years. She is a double-boarded physician in Family and Bariatric Medicine.
She was raised in a family that valued health and quality in their everyday meals. From home grown produce to not allowing junk food, Lechner’s parents made sure that they provided the best for their children.
Even while practicing as a family doctor, her philosophy was always influenced by taking a holistic approach that focused on targeting the underlying reasons for the disease.
“I always had an approach to address diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure with lifestyle interventions. Not only were patients making improvements in the clinical markers, they were feeling better,” she recalls.
This philosophy was even further reinforced in her life when she herself developed medical issues. Despite normal labs and test results, she found herself depleted of energy and in need of intervention that conventional medicine could not address.
Her personal and professional experience led her to functional medicine.
Six years ago, she became a certified Functional Medicine Practitioner through the Institute of Functional Medicine. Currently, she works out of her private practice, Shine Functional Health, where she leads a team of experts to diagnose and treat patients in a holistic and personalized way.
HOPE FOR THE TALK
Lechner, Berilla, and the team behind Raising Great Girls hope that parents walk away from this talk with a renewed sense of the importance of physical health and practical advice on how to instill this in their daughters.
As experts in functional nutrition, Lechner and Berilla both have a heightened awareness of the difficulty of living a healthy lifestyle today: outdated nutritional guidance from the USF&D, overuse of pesticides in general produce, and a saturation of ultra-processed foods in the average diet are just some of the reasons that contribute to the challenge.
Adolescent girls are particularly susceptible to societal pressures that promote unhealthy habits and negative self-image. Mass media and culture tell the girls that they ‘deserve’ junk food and foster unbalanced lives where they are constantly half-entertained even when they should be focused and working.
“I have seen a dramatic rise in depression and mood disorders, as well as a rise in obesity and hormone issues,” Lechner says about her teenage patients. “These are all so related, and getting girls – and their parents – to understand that daily choices of what to eat, how much sleep to get and exercise have a tremendous impact on how they feel in the short and long term.”
Willows equips parents and mentors to address these cultural challenges. Our mentoring program includes a component for physical health: students are advised personally to consider her sleep, nutrition, balancing her schedule to make room for resting in God, and more. The goal is for our girls to proactively take ownership of their physical health and consequently develop an authentic self-confidence.
Assistant Head of School Angela Fortunato sums up the Willows point of view, “We want girls to be conscientiously countercultural. We want them to foster self-control and base their positive self-image in being beloved daughters of God.”