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12 books on wellness that will make you see your health differently

A wellness reading list by Kristin Warkentin

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in navigating the health care system with a Mysterious Chronic Illness it’s that a series of 15 minute doctors’ visits is not going to teach you everything you need to know about how your body, mind or spirit work. It takes a lot of homework to begin to understand your own health, and to be an effective advocate for yourself with your health care providers. While wellness might seem a more pressing concern for those of us who lack it, it is one of the few subjects that has profound implications for every single person on the planet. That’s one reason I find it so fascinating. 

There are endless books written on the topic, endless perspectives to consider, and endless sub-categories so that reading just one article can send you on a wild goose chase for the Holy Grail that is understanding human health. 

If you’re looking for a place to start, I’ve got you covered. This is very far from a comprehensive list – more of a beginner’s crash course on the subject of wellness. It contains fascinating research about trauma, deep dives into the state of human health from a social justice lens, individual perspectives about living with chronic illness, and both scientific and cultural knowledge about medicinal plants, to name a few. It even features several local authors. 

So read one, read all or just read the synopses – I hope you’ll find something helpful here.

Books About Chronic Illness and Trauma

  • The Body Keeps the Score By Bessel Van Der Kolk
  • The Wellness Project By Phoebe Lapine
  • When the Body Says No *Local Author By Gabor Maté
The Body Keeps the Score
By Bessel Van Der Kolk

This heavily researched book about the ways that trauma affects the body has become a foundational work in the canon of trauma-informed literature. Bessel Van Der Kolk has worked for decades as a psychiatrist at some of the most well-respected institutions in the United States. In this book, he draws stories and research out of this experience into a coherent and easy to understand theory of trauma. He also dedicates a full third of the book to therapies that have been shown to help heal the trauma that is stored in our bodies.

The Wellness Project
By Phoebe Lapine

From award-winning food blogger to wellness author? It’s not such a great leap when you learn that Phoebe Lapine was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease in her 20s. This book promises a roadmap for managing chronic illness (or simply improving your wellbeing) without the endless “do not” lists some of us are very familiar with. It’s both a memoir (aren’t we all our own wellness experiment?) and a practical guide. 

When the Body Says No *Local Author
By Gabor Maté

Vancouver-based physician Gabor Mate catapulted to worldwide recognition with his first book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, which examined the social aspects of addiction and recovery. In When The Body Says No, Mate highlights the connection between mind and body in illnesses such as IBS, cancer and multiple sclerosis. He also offers suggestions for preventing and healing these illnesses, which he believes have a common root in stress.

Books About Health at a Societal Level

By Rupa Marya and Raj Patel

As someone with a Mysterious Chronic Illness, I’ve had the word “inflammation” thrown at me a lot. Everything from chronic pain to indigestion to headaches have been explained at one time or another by “inflammation”, and even people who’ve never been sick in their lives have heard about anti-inflammatory foods like turmeric. When I picked this book up I knew immediately that it was coming home with me. I believe that wellness, and conversely, illness, are not only individual – they are societal as well. Inflamed looks at the injustices that plague our societies through the lens of the human body, and it is fascinating. 

BC Atlas of Wellness *Local Authors
By Leslie T. Foster and C. Peter Keller

Do you want to know where in the province the healthiest people live? What can be learned from communities that have the lowest rate of diabetes, for example, or the most active walkers? Using health data from sources such as the census, this academic publication looks at the healthiest places in BC, according to various health determinants. The book was published in 2007, so some information may be out of date, but it is nonetheless an interesting look at the health of our province – both what we are doing well and who is missing out. 

*Free PDF version available here

Books About Spiritual Approaches to Wellness

Affirmations for Turbulent Times *Local Author
By Sarah Peyton

Out of a history of intergenerational trauma and depression, Pacific Northwest author Sarah Peyton discovered what she calls relational neuroscience – that is, the combination of neuroscience with other disciplines such as psychology and attachment research. 

She is most well-known for her book, Your Resonant Self, about the power of connection and self-empathy for healing, but this little gem offers quick and calming affirmations for a variety of day-to-day situations that are easy to access for those of us who are too busy, too tired, or too brain-foggy to read anything longform. 

The Essence of Sound *Canadian Author
By Evelyn Mulder

Energy healing is one of those concepts that has always made sense to me in theory (energy is a quantifiable scientific fact, after all) but in practice, has felt eerily similar to the “laying on of hands” style of prayer, with results that are utterly un-reproducible. But if you are open to the idea of energy healing, or have ever had an inexplicable experience with a singing bowl, this book is worth a read. In it, Evelyn Mulder looks at energy healing specifically through the lens of sound, blending the traditions of the chakra system, energy meridians, and other concepts of bodily energy into a guide to “vibrational healing”. 

Books About Indigenous Perspectives on Wellness and the Healing Power of Nature

Kaa-wiichitoyaahk: We Take Care of Each Other *Local Author
By the Métis Nation of BC

Described as a “cultural wellness guide”, this book was developed in collaboration with Metis elders and youth across BC. In addition to offering a Métis understanding of wellness for both Métis and non-Métis people, this book highlights our growing understanding that healing and wellness aren’t just individual – they are societal and cultural as well. 

Mother Earth Plants for Health and Beauty *Canadian Author
By Carrie Armstrong

In this beautiful collection of recipes, teachings, prayers and poetry, founder of Mother Earth Essentials Carrie Armstrong shares the wisdom she inherited from her Cree grandmother and gathered through her work with Cree elder Francis Whiskeyjack. It is at once a practical guide and a testament to the healing power of plants. 

Edible and Medicinal Flora of the West Coast *Local Author
By Collin Varner

Are you, like me, curious about wild foraged medicinal plants but have no idea where to start learning about them? As head of the horticulture department at UBC, Collin Varner knows a thing or two about plants. This book is a comprehensive guide detailing over 130 edible and medicinal plants that can be found on the West Coast of BC.

Books About Grief

By Katherine May

“Wintering is a season in the cold. It is a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress or cast into the role of an outsider.” So goes the first chapter of Wintering, a book that I discovered when the author was giving an interview for the On Being podcast, and which I immediately fell in love with. To think of hard times as a natural season of life rather than something we need to rush through or a punishment for something we’ve done wrong is a refreshing perspective, and the writing itself is gentle and beautiful. 

The Wild Edge of Sorrow
By Francis Weller

This book was recommended to me by one of my doctors and I bought it for the title alone. Thinking of chronic illness as something that involves grief is still new to me, but it’s true. I’ve been in denial, I’ve bargained, I’ve accepted and I’ve done it all over again. The Wild Edge of Sorrow is about creating rituals around grief to give it meaning and to increase our capacity to handle it. It is also about grieving as a communal practice – something many of us have never really learned how to do.