Anything but conventional, ‘The Big Bang Theory’ actress is also a
neuroscientist and mom who embraces
a natural approach to health.
By Allan Richter
Mayim Bialik found fame in the title role of the 1990s sitcom “Blossom,” and grew up to play one of America’s favorite scientists, Dr. Amy Fowler—a role that has garnered her three Emmy nominations—on the current hit, “The Big Bang Theory.” Along the way, Bialik, 38, took other career paths that make it all but impossible to call her conventional.
She has authored Beyond the Sling (Touchstone), about attachment parenting, a style of raising children that calls for a strong emotional connection between parent and child, and Mayim’s Vegan Table (Da Capo), a collection of some of the recipes with which she helps support her healthy lifestyle. And if you doubt her credentials in either of these areas, consider her neuroscience degree (art and life intersecting) and her longtime affinity for holistic approaches to health.
“I fell in love with science when I was 15,” Bialik says. “I had a biology tutor when I was on the set of ‘Blossom,’ and she was the one who gave me the skillset and the confidence to go on to a degree in neuroscience. ‘Blossom’ ended when I was two years out of high school, and I wanted to pursue a life of science.”
When her studies took Bialik to UCLA, she began to hear different perspectives on health. “I started adopting an alternative and naturopathic approach to healthcare, which worked really well for me. I was in college, but I cut out dairy and have not had a sinus infection since.”
Her knowledge of the brain’s workings helped support the natural approaches she had come to embrace, such as the power of the mind to affect the body—including in healing. “From my understanding as a neuroscientist, there is no psychological experience that doesn’t have neurochemistry behind it,” Bialik explains. “Every notion, every sensation, everything that we perceive—whether it’s love, hate, introspection, memory—all of those things are from the firing of synapses in the nervous system. Every thought and every emotion is wired into your brain, into your nervous system and into your entire body.”
What Bialik learned from neuroscience also made her abandon her plans to become a research professor and instead spend more quality time with her children. “It’s kind of ironic that I studied oxytocin and vasopressin for my thesis. I studied obsessive compulsive disorder in a syndrome called Prader-Willi. I was studying the way those hormones are secreted from the brain in primates and even many animals that are not primates to create powerful bonding relationships between spouses, and also between mothers and fathers and their children.
“So the decision that I made was to spend the formative years of my kids’ lives with them, rather than with someone else’s children teaching them in a university. It was a difficult decision. It’s a decision a lot of women have to make. But, for me, that decision was reinforced by the things that I was learning, how we are primed to connect to our young. That’s normal. It’s nothing to be ashamed of or feel that you are not as competent a woman if you choose not to go back to work after six weeks when you have a baby.”
Bialik spoke with us during breaks on the Burbank, California, set of “The Big Bang Theory” about the complementary healthcare she embraces, parenting her sons, Miles, 9, and Frederick, 6, and more.
Energy Times: How did you not only avoid child actor syndrome, which has taken some child actors into a downward spiral, but also become such a multifaceted achiever?
Mayim Bialik: My parents are first-generation American, and I was raised with a “you can do anything, this is the land of opportunity” kind of philosophy. They raised me and my brother to have a broad variety of interests and always really emphasized my education, even when I was acting on “Blossom” when I was younger. And I’m just a studious personality, I guess.
ET: In Beyond the Sling, you make a strong case that parents should rely more on their intuition to guide them in decision-making, that we intuitively know how to interpret an infant’s cries and signals, for example.
MB: We are complicated animals, but we are absolutely animals. I’m not a medical doctor. I read Mothering magazine. That was sort of my guide for the early years of parenting. We called it “natural family living,” which was relying on naturopathy and things that are considered alternative in our culture.
People are shocked to hear that I don’t stock Tylenol or ibuprofen for babies in my house. I rarely use Western medicine for my kids. They’ve never been on antibiotics. They’re very healthy and happy. And we find a lot of ways to take care of them and ourselves: spending a lot of time with them, learning who they are, enjoying them in their formative years. Those are things that help with everyone’s mental health, which I would hope in the long run does decrease the need for Western intervention.
ET: I imagine the same can be said about self-reliance and health, that we can use intuition to guide us more about our own well-being.
MB: Absolutely. Many of us come from either ethnic or religious traditions that emphasize self-reliance, and conventional Western culture often tries to beat that out of us. Some of the things in my family, for example, are Eastern European food remedies and things like that.
Many of them work. The good old-fashioned attempts to relax, all those things actually do help with general stress.
The motivation for the vegan cookbook was that I have a lot of Jewish recipes from my family that I’ve made vegan. These are things such as traditional Jewish desserts and food for Jewish holidays. The cookbook is not Jewish per se, but those recipes are where it started. We have a vegan “chicken” soup in there, which is Jewish penicillin, and a lot of other comforting foods.
ET: Elaborate on your aversion to conventional medicine.
MB: The notion that conventional medicine is really working on a Western model, which treats symptoms but doesn’t get to the root of the problem, always bothered me. There are a lot of side effects and things you don’t want. Those are my main reasons.
I also believe it’s important to stimulate the body to naturally know how to heal itself, and to support that. In a lot of cases we need rest, water and good nutrition. Many of us don’t have the ability to have access to that, and I totally understand that. But I also think it shouldn’t be a luxury to have time off from your job, to be able to work and live in an environment that supports rest. I happen to have the kind of job where I don’t get sick days, and it’s not nearly as difficult or critical as the jobs many people have where they don’t get sick days.
But I understand we sometimes want a quick fix. I get migraines, and actually I’ll usually drink a Coca-Cola because the caffeine seems to help, but I have taken ibuprofen. I just try not to make it the first thing I reach for. I also don’t want my children to think I take a pill for every ill.
ET: What was your experience
with Western medicine before you began to embrace a more holistic approach in college?
MB: I used to be on antibiotics all the time. I was sneezing all the time and had a lot of allergies. So that was my first major understanding that what we eat affects our health, and that the conventional notions of what’s healthy, what we eat and how we’re supposed to treat our bodies isn’t always best for everybody.
I’ve dabbled in a lot of things. Homeopathy I’m sort of on the fence about simply because there haven’t been large documented studies, and a lot of people want those in order to believe in things like homeopathy. But I have used the remedies, and sometimes things work, sometimes they don’t. But I would rather try that than conventional medicine first.
I treated fevers and colds and all of those things. We had H1N1 (swine flu), actually. My older son, my husband at the time and I all got H1N1; the breastfeeding baby didn’t. We simply used naturopathy, essential oils and all sorts of more holistic treatments.
There is a real lack of understanding that the body is an organism. A lot of Western medicine is simply trying to make symptoms go away without treating the actual causes.
ET: How does your approach to a vegan lifestyle differ from others? Put another way, how is your book Mayim’s Vegan Table different than other vegan cookbooks?
MB: To be honest, there are a lot healthier vegans than I. And many of those healthier vegans are stay-at-home parents who have a lot of time to be making and preparing healthy food. I have to eat out more. I have to eat more processed food than I like to; even though it’s vegan, it’s still processed.
But what we tried to do with the cookbook was take the recipes that I most often feed to my kids and the recipes that I most often make for non-vegans. The report usually is, “Wow, I can’t believe this is vegan. It actually tastes good.” So the notion was to really create a non-vegan friendly cookbook of recipes that are not difficult to make. We really tried to make very approachable, kind of comfort-food recipes, and those are the ones I’m most often cooking.
ET: Do you take supplements?
MB: I take a vitamin B12 supplement, which some vegans don’t. B12 is the only thing that you can’t get from a plant source. It is in dirt, so I joke about not rinsing your vegetables all the way. I try to take a multi. I have a thyroid condition, an overactive thyroid, so I’m also supposed to take extra vitamin D. I take calcium also. There’s also a vegan omega that I take.
ET: How about exercise? I’m guessing you’re not a stationary bike or treadmill person.
MB: No, I like running. I actually like weight lifting. I had a serious car accident two years ago, so that’s limited my ability to do a lot of things, but I like running. Running I actually took up as a grownup, a year ago.
ET: Any concerns about hurting your joints with running?
MB: I decided I won’t run for very long distances, and I invested in a solid pair of really good shoes and socks, which are important. I run around three miles. And I decided I will do that until I can’t. You know, to take up running at 37, which is what I did, is no easy task, and I don’t have a runner’s body. So I do other weight-bearing stuff to make sure my knees are supported. I actually like running on pavement. I live in a canyon and it’s hilly. I like to see houses and people.
ET: For people unfamiliar with it, what is attachment parenting and how did you come to embrace it?
MB: It’s an umbrella term for a style of parenting that encourages you to listen to your instincts, and follow the patterns that primates tend to follow when we parent. So things like natural births, breast feeding, sleeping safely with your baby, wearing your baby as opposed to pushing your baby in a stroller, having one parent—typically the mother—but having a parent or caregiver be there full time.
Those are some of the things people in attachment parenting do. The universal aspect of attachment parenting is something called positive discipline or gentle discipline, which means no hitting. So not hitting your children is something people kind of universally agree on in attachment parenting. Attachment parenting believes in being kind to children and babies, and valuing their voice and not using force to get your way as an adult.
ET: What are some examples of how you apply attachment parenting in raising your children?
MB: A lot of the things are decisions you make when you’re giving birth or when your children are infants. At this stage my boys are 9 and 6. They are transitioning to sleeping on their own, although sometimes in the morning they will curl up with me or with their dad. Things like birth and breastfeeding, all that stuff ends at some point, but the enduring principal of attachment parenting is gentle discipline.
And no one does it perfectly. I know I don’t do it perfectly. Children are always looking to have their needs met, and if they’re behaving poorly it’s because we’ve missed all their indications that they were unhappy or hungry or tired or lonely before that, and they will get louder and louder, and sometimes obnoxious, if they don’t feel their basic needs are being met.
The notion is not that you create a perfect world for children or make them feel that the world is handed to them on a platter; but in terms of their basic survival needs, yeah it’s super-important.
When is the last time you were upset and someone you loved said to you, “Get over it. Stop crying. I don’t want to deal with it”? It usually doesn’t happen with adults, and it’s ironic that people think that’s okay to do to children.
ET: When you talk about using force and imposing your will on children, it’s not necessarily physical force.
MB: Correct. In our house, we don’t do time-outs. I never count to three “or else.” We try and do what are called logical consequences. So I don’t do the “If you don’t stop doing this, you don’t get dessert” or “If you don’t stop doing this, you can’t watch TV.” I was raised like that, many of us were.
But for many of us who practice attachment parenting, [harsh discipline] sets up a relationship with your child that is not seeking to build up but is seeking to establish power. I found that it can really break down communication. I don’t want my kids to feel that I’m constantly threatening to take away from them if they express something I’m not comfortable with. There are other ways that we enforce discipline.
MB: I don’t really use rewards, no. I use logical consequences for logical behavior. Many of us don’t do reward or punishment because it’s sort of the same spectrum if you think about it. I don’t give chocolate chips for good behavior or when they use the potty or anything like that. I appreciate their achievements. I let them feel pride in the things that they do. But the reward for behaving a certain way is that we all get to get along nicely and do lots of things together.
ET: Are we making progress when it comes to the emotional health of girls and young women, and their self-image? It seems to me girls and young women are still told through various media to hold themselves up to an artificial standard.
MB: Yeah, that doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon. In some ways it’s gotten better. We have more kinds of women in the public eye than were represented, for example, when I was a teenager. We now see television shows that have females as the lead actress, which, when I was a kid, did not exist.
I write a post for a site called Kveller, and I just wrote about some billboards with literally half-naked women on them, half-naked teenagers as well. Many of those teenagers are celebrities, but I’m trying to understand how I’m supposed to explain that to my sons. I don’t even know what I would do if I had daughters, but for sure I don’t know how to explain to my sons that women whom they hear on the radio who are talented musicians have to display themselves half-naked in order to sell records. That’s really disturbing to me, and I don’t see it changing soon.
Some of it is shifting, but I definitely feel like the age at which girls are expected to look like women has absolutely decreased, and that’s really difficult. When I was 14 and I was on “Blossom,” I looked like a 14-year-old. I still slept with dolls, and I was still a kid. There’s nothing wrong with that.
ET: What are some of your thoughts on building self-esteem in young people?
MB: Well, I don’t watch TV, and I usually feel better about myself when I don’t. I definitely am in favor of limiting media for kids and for teenagers to things that you are prepared to talk about with your child or teenager. That’s kind of how my ex and I do it with our boys. We’re very careful about what they watch. I don’t have a TV, so they don’t watch TV with me. They’ve seen some cartoons at their dad’s. We actually showed them “Frozen” because a friend of mine had it on DVD, and, honestly, my boys thought it was silly. It didn’t appeal to them at all. It’s important to be as careful as you can.
I also don’t have a nanny. I don’t have a housekeeper. So I have a lot of time where I wish I could plop them in front of a TV while I get things done, but I really want to know what’s going on. I talk to my boys a lot about men and women, and what things our society values, and how women can do things like men can in a lot of ways, and how men can do things like women in a lot of ways, but that there are differences. Teaching them interesting thoughts about men and women hopefully will add to their broader understanding of the politics of gender.
Tomato Soup with Israeli Couscous
Soup is sometimes where great meal planning starts, especially with delicious and
sophisticated flavors like those you’ll find in this Middle Eastern-inspired soup.
The garlic and deceptively simple spices create a complex base. With the addition of couscous,
this soup is a meal in itself.
2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1-2 carrots, diced
1 can chopped tomatoes (14 oz)
6 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
6 1/4 cups vegan vegetable stock
1-1 1/2 cups uncooked Israeli couscous
2-3 mint sprigs, chopped, or several pinches of dried mint
1/4 tsp ground cumin
1/4 bunch fresh cilantro or about 5 sprigs, chopped
salt and freshly ground pepper
1. Heat the olive oil in a large pan, add the onion and carrots, and cook over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes until softened. Add the tomatoes, half of the garlic, vegetable stock, couscous, mint, cumin, and cilantro.
2. Bring the soup to boil, add the remaining chopped garlic, then lower the heat slightly and simmer gently for 7-10 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the couscous is just tender. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
From Mayim’s Vegan Table: More Than 100 Great-Tasting
and Healthy Recipes from My Family to Yours by Mayim Bialik
with Dr. Jay Gordon. Reprinted courtesy
of Da Capo Lifelong Books.