When practising self-care, it is so important to consider your choice of food and how you approach food in your everyday life. As Hippocrates suggests, food can be thought of as powerful medicine that we take into our bodies several times a day. Like other medicine we need to choose what supports our physical and mental health rather than undermines it.
We now know that our food choices affect both our physical and mental health. We also know that our mental and physical health can affect our food choices too.
As a culture we seem to have forgotten how important food is to our overall health. We often forget to eat when we are busy, or binge eat processed foods when we are stressed. We often eat while writing reports at work or eat sitting in front of the TV. These habits often negatively affect our physical and mental health.
So, this month why not prioritize one the most accessible self-care tools you have in your toolkit - food?
Understanding the role of the brain-gut connection in mental well-being
Over the past decade research has helped us to understand of the complex relationship between our gut and our brain. Mayer believes that understanding the mind-gut connection is crucial for whole body health.
Research shows that the interaction of the gut and its microbes can influence our basic emotions; pain sensitivity, social interactions and even guide many of the decisions we make and vice versa.
If you've ever felt butterflies in your stomach when you were nervous, or have 'gone with your gut' when making a decision you’re likely getting signals right from your gut.
Research is in fact showing that we really do make decisions based on our ‘gut reaction’.
Understanding the mind-gut connection can help us make more informed choices about food and eating. The gut, the microbes living in it called the gut microbiota, and the signalling molecules that they produce from their vast number of genes - the microbiome, constitutes one of the major components of our regulatory system that helps our bodies and brains adapt to our rapidly changing environment.
The gut communicates with our brain via the gut-brain axis. The gut sends sensory information to the brain and the brain sends signals back to the gut to adjust its function via the axis. The close relationship plays a crucial role in the generation of emotions and in good gut function.
The gut and serotonin
An example of how the gut and brain are linked is the signalling molecule serotonin.
Did you know that the gut is the largest store for serotonin in the body? 95% of our serotonin is stored in the gut.
Serotonin is essential for normal intestinal function, and also plays a crucial role in sleep, appetite, pain sensitivity, mood and overall wellbeing. Serotonin is the main target of the major class of antidepressants. Therefore, it follows that we need to have good gut health in order to have good mental health.
Self-care for your gut
Knowing more about the brain-gut connection, it should come as no surprise that self-care tools such as improved diet; eating more of a plant-based diet and less refined carbohydrates or red meat, meditation and mindfulness can all help us to maintain balance.
Adjusting how we approach food can also help. In order for our body to make full use of the food we eat we should eat when we are calm. The parasympathetic nervous system is often referred to as the rest, digest and personal growth system. This means that when our nervous system is calm, we are more able to digest what we put into our body.
Many food experts suggest we should create a positive, calm environment when we are about to eat and would never recommend eating in front of the TV.
Being mindful when we eat can help us to appreciate our food, stay calm while eating, tune in to our bodies response to the food we are eating and help us realise when we have eaten enough to satisfy our needs.
Studies about food and well-being
Monash University’s course, Food as Medicine, encourages participants to eat a wide variety of food regardless of what type of diet you follow. They encourage this because although we understand much about macronutrients and their impact on the body and mind, we do not yet understand the workings of micronutrients.
They encourage participants to eat many unprocessed foods and to eat a minimum of 20 different foods every day. This is quite a challenge, I know because I’ve done it and still do it, most of the time. It gets easier once you understand the principle. I’ve included an example of how I manage this below.
Could you give it a try and note the changes in your body and mind?
Breakfast: Stewed apples, raspberries, blueberries, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, linseed, cinnamon
Lunch: Spinach, chopped carrot, shredded cabbage, sweetcorn, bean sprouts, avocado, olive oil
Dinner: Brown rice, butternut squash and chickpea curry (containing onion, tomatoes and spices).
A small change
This month, I invite you to join me in making one small change in how you approach food in your everyday life.
Can you set a time aside each day to be fully present while eating a snack or meal?
This requires practice. You might like to start off with your favourite beverage whether it be tea, glass of wine or gin and tonic!
Set aside time when you will not be disturbed, switch of the TV, radio, phone etc.
Become aware of your desire for this drink.
Smell the drink as you prepare it.
Become aware of the noise as you pour the drink.
Notice how your body responds.
Notice the weight of the cup or glass in your hand.
Notice the muscles in your hand and arm as you lift it to your mouth.
Notice how your body responds before you even take a sip.
Tune in to how the first sip feels in your mouth.
Are you tempted to drink it down quickly?
Can you resist your normal pattern?
Can you savour every mouthful?
If your mind wanders, bring it gentle back to the task at hand. All you are required to do at this moment is to be aware of your drink and how you are drinking. Be gentle with yourself. Take time to enjoy being fully present with your favourite drink.
Being fully present when we eat can help us learn what foods work to support our bodies and minds and what foods challenge our systems. We are all different. Being mindful can also help us learn when we have satisfied our hunger and avoid eating without thinking or overeating.
If you are interested in finding out more, I’d recommended the following resources:
The Food and Mood Handbook – Amanda Geary
The Mind-Gut Connection – Emeran Mayer
Monash University – Online Course
Mindful Eating, Mindful Life – Thich Nhat Hahn and Dr Lilian Cheung
Food and our relationship with food is complex but it is also fascinating. Remember to be kind to yourself in any changes that you chose to make.