Taraji P. Henson Is Ready To Talk About The Wake-Up Call That Changed Her Life

Photo credit: Marcus Smith
Photo credit: Marcus Smith

Taraji P. Henson has a secret.

Or at least it was a secret until the final moments of this interview, when the details came tumbling out. Taraji, whose wildly popular Facebook Watch series, Peace of Mind With Taraji, returned for its second season on October 11, is making a life-changing leap in a new direction. And it might not have happened if she hadn’t spent the past year focused on her health.

But before we get into the details of her breaking news, we need to rewind to the inciting incident—the medical emergency that sent the now-51-year-old star to the hospital in 2017—and the morning, not that long ago, when she woke up with a Cheeto plastered to her face.

For as long as she can remember, Taraji has suffered from stomach problems. She recalls an episode when her son, Marcell, now 27, was only 5 or 6. She’d had several glasses of orange juice, then started vomiting uncontrollably. She was prescribed a popular proton-pump inhibitor (PPI), a medication used to treat acid reflux. The treatment remedied her symptoms but did little to cure the underlying problem.

In 2015, after another episode of uncontrolled vomiting and weight loss, Taraji was rushed to a hospital in Monte Carlo, where she’d been promoting the Fox hit Empire. Two years later, while on location in Macon, Georgia, filming The Best of Enemies, it happened again. Taraji became so ill and dehydrated that she had to lie down on the floor of her hotel room. To avoid attracting the attention of onlookers, Taraji’s assistant and security person spirited the actor off the premises on a luggage rack covered with a blanket and whisked her into a waiting car.

At the hospital, a doctor gave Taraji a dire warning: “He said, ‘If you don’t correct what’s going on inside of you, you’re going to develop stomach ulcers, which can lead to stomach cancer,’” she recalls. Taraji was again prescribed a PPI. But this time her symptoms, instead of improving, only got worse. That’s when Taraji’s assistant put her in touch with a holistic doctor, an intervention Taraji insists helped save her life.

Holistic practitioners subscribe to the philosophy that optimal health can best be achieved by a “whole body” approach to wellness, one that may include conventional medicine, as well as a focus on nutrition, lifestyle changes, and mental health. The goal of many holistic doctors is to address and rectify the underlying cause of a problem, instead of simply managing the symptoms.

Taraji’s new doctor performed a noninvasive breath test that measures the amount of hydrogen or methane exhaled after drinking a mixture of glucose and water. According to the Mayo Clinic, a rapid rise in one of these gases may indicate the presence of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), a painful condition that can cause constipation, indigestion, and malnutrition.

SIBO can occur after abdominal surgery or in people whose digestive tract has anatomical abnormalities. But disruptions in intestinal bacteria—also known as “gut flora”—can also be caused by PPIs, the medication Taraji had been prescribed.

“Western medicine saves lives,” says Taraji. “But it wasn’t helping in my situation.” Her holistic doctor diagnosed her with SIBO and started her on a plant-based diet, with plenty of papaya, avocado, and fermented vegetables, which contain probiotics key to restoring gut flora. Taraji’s health immediately improved on her new protocol. For more than a year, she ate mostly vegan, save for the occasional exception she made for her grandmother’s cooking. “Everything in moderation,” she says. Then the pandemic hit.

Photo credit: Marcus Smith
Photo credit: Marcus Smith

Taraji found herself stuck at home with nothing but time. “I was like, ‘Well, ain’t nobody going nowhere, so I might as well eat,’” she says with a laugh. During the initial months of lockdown, Taraji had a houseguest who happened to be a great cook. He baked banana bread and lemon pound cake and fixed Taraji her favorite cocktail, an old-fashioned, which she’d sip while eating cake, floating on a noodle in her pool. “And I was loving it,” she adds.

Eventually, though, Taraji noticed her lockdown lifestyle was taking a toll on her physical and mental health. “I was like, ‘This can sink me,’” she says. “The older you get, the harder it is to get in shape. I didn’t want to be climbing out of a hole.” Her low point was the morning she woke up with crumbs in her bed and a Cheeto stuck to her face. “That’s when I realized I had to do everything I could to feel good, or that depression thing was going to get the best of me,” she recalls. The first thing she did was hit the gym. “When I get those endorphins going, I’m like a whole different girl,” she says.

Since August 2020, Taraji has been working with celebrity trainer Mike T., of Force Fitness, to build stamina and strength. Her workouts begin with a 16-minute walk on her treadmill, followed by an hour of weights, cardio, and plenty of abs, including sets of reverse curls to target the rectus abdominis and twists for obliques. Taraji was so pleased with the results, this summer she posted an Instagram pic of her abdomen looking sleek and snatched. Immediately, the comments section lit up with fire emojis.

As Taraji describes this current five-day-a-week workout over a Zoom call from her home office in Los Angeles, she’s fresh-faced, wearing a shoulder-length bob, and cradling a giant bowl of chicken meatballs and coleslaw prepared by Chef Mundi Griffin, her personal chef. “I’m sorry,” she says, setting down the bowl. “This is the only time I get to eat!”

Taraji tells me her favorite exercises are “anything to do with the butt.” She loves squats, lunges, and especially deadlifts. The key to an effective deadlift, she says, is proper form, which took her a while to master. She jumps out of her chair to demonstrate: “You have to keep your feet parallel and let your arms dangle,” she says, hinging at her hips. “Your focus should be on your glutes and hamstrings, so you actually feel the pull when you’re coming up.”

Of course, physical fitness is only part of the wellness equation. In 2018, Taraji, who has a history of depression and anxiety, founded the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, named for her father, a Vietnam vet who suffered from PTSD and bipolar disorder. During the pandemic, the foundation provided mental health services, free of charge, to hundreds of people.

And Taraji reaches millions more through her Emmy-nominated Peace of Mind. Along with cohost Tracie Jade, Taraji delivers riveting interviews with celebrity friends and regular folks alike, on topics ranging from suicide and sexual trauma to eating disorders. The show also features mental health experts offering guidance and support. Taraji wants to help people heal.

Whether it happens in the gym, kitchen, or therapist’s office, healing often brings unexpected rewards. After the Cheeto incident, Taraji not only reignited her training regime but also renewed her focus on healthy eating. Of all the good that’s come from Taraji’s year of training hard and fueling herself well, perhaps the biggest surprise is the secret she’s been keeping under wraps—until now.

Photo credit: Marcus Smith
Photo credit: Marcus Smith

“I’ve been singing,” she says, flashing a wide grin. “It just came out of me!” Taraji, who studied musical theater at Howard University, suspects her dairy-free diet may have contributed to reaching notes she’d thought were out of her range. (Singers are often told to avoid milk based on a belief that it can make you phlegmy, though there’s no science to support this.)

As Taraji’s voice soared, opportunities followed. She booked a singing role in Disney Plus’s Muppets Haunted Mansion, and later this year she will be starring as Miss Hannigan in NBC’s Annie Live. Taraji also hit the studio to record music of her own.

“I’ve been secretly working on an EP,” she reveals. “But it wasn’t like, ‘Taraji wants to sing,’ and then 20 writers come and bring me their songs.” Instead, she collaborated with top-notch producers and wrote the lyrics herself. She describes her upcoming EP—which is set to drop at the top of the new year—as filled with sexy, happy, feel-good music, the type that “makes you want to dance until the sun comes up.”

Most of all, Taraji hopes people will be inspired—not only by her new music but also by her journey. When she started singing, she says, it felt as if the sky opened up, revealing a whole world of brand-new possibilities. “I want people to know that it’s never too late for anything,” she says. “You can get your health together and live out your wildest dreams.”

Photo credit: Marcus Smith
Photo credit: Marcus Smith

Photographed by Marcus Smith; Fashion Editor: Kristen Saladino; Hair: Tym Wallace for Mastermind Management Group; Makeup: Saisha Beecham for Artists Management; Production: Crawford Productions

This article appears in the November 2021 issue of Women’s Health. Become a Women's Health+ member now.

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