Food and Mood

How would you describe the connection between food and mood? I attended a webinar last week on using nutrition to facilitate trauma healing. I haven’t had time to review studies on this subject so I won’t give you a specific regimen to check out or links to websites yet. What I will tell you is the message was powerful and visibly resonated with the audience. It’s the only time I’ve ever been in a Zoom call in which numerous participants wiped away tears as they listened.

The crux of the work involves noting sensations or emotions we experience (or are trying to avoid) at a moment when our bodies feel driven to seek stimulating or depressing foods. Are we attempting to pump up adrenaline or calm it down? What is underneath our desire to do this? Can we recognize eating habits we’ve developed to regulate fight, flight, freeze, and fawn responses? What happens emotionally when we change our eating habits?

Why does any of this matter?

We know that a high percentage of people fail in attempts to follow a new diet regimen over a long period of time. This is true whether the diet is designed for weight loss or to avoid gluten. And it’s true in people who may be highly disciplined in every other area. Perhaps exploring what happens emotionally when we change our eating habits can give some insight that will lead to better approaches for lasting change.

What exactly would we explore?

The short answer is how food relates to us and how we relate to food.

We typically do this with a particular diet strategy in mind. We may be more successful over the long haul if we focus on rituals and culture and how food relates to feelings of safety or danger.

How can we discover that?

We can begin with habits – the foods we reach for regularly; times of day we reach for something; whether we tend to withhold food from ourselves, etc. Keeping a journal may be helpful.

What comes next?

Next, we can explore what we are feeling when we reach for the caffeine or chocolate or potato chips or fried chicken that we see regularly appearing in our journals. We can also record how we feel after we consume that food and how long the feeling lasts.

Looking at these patterns allows us to determine our relationship with food. Once we have a grasp of it, we can slowly build tolerance for feelings of uncertainty and danger that may result from changes in diet.

Why on earth would this work?

Food is a mood regulator. You can find plenty of scientific studies about the particular nutritional properties of food and how those relate to mood. In practicality, the specific properties don’t matter until the body is able to feel safe when we change our habits and rituals. This requires deliberately building a framework for safety.

For example, sugar is a stimulant. You can calm the body by limiting or removing it. When you do so, you’ll eliminate empty calories and lose weight. Easy, right?

Yes, but…

The body adapts to threats using the tools it has available for regulation. One of those tools is food. Another is swallowing. It is normal for the body to resort to an adapted response that may no longer be needed.

If a dieter lived with constant stress as a child, a high level of adrenaline may feel normal or “safe.”  That person may consume large amounts of stimulants – chocolate, candy, sweetened coffee drinks, sodas, dried fruit – or skip meals in order to feel normal. When a high level of stimulation feels normal or safe, removing it will cause a feeling of danger.

That means removing sugar from the diet can send the body into fight, flight, freeze, or fawn mode. Because this is an adapted physiological response, it will not magically go away on its own.

But it is possible to develop a framework for healing that shifts our relationship with food over time. It is the change in the relationship that will allow us to use food to improve mood in a healthy, lasting way.

So here’s what I’m taking away from the webinar: If you have struggled with any kind of dietary change, you are not alone. If you’ve ever punished yourself for resorting to old habits, you can stop. Once you recognize your body is trying to protect you from something unbearable, you can stop fighting yourself. Once you stop fighting yourself, there’s more time and energy for realigning the relationship between food and mood.

All of this feels right to me with or without studies to support the specifics. I can’t wait to learn more about my own food and mood!

Here’s to exploration!

Wrap Yourself in Warmth

As 2022 begins looking much like 2020-2, a resolution to wrap yourself in warmth may be more realistic than anything you may have chosen in 2019. When stress is ongoing, there’s nothing wrong with choosing an extra dose of warm, fuzzy comfort!

While that may sound indulgent, it can also be good for your mental health. And reducing stress is good for your physical health as well.

Most of the US experienced the anxiety that comes with a sudden inability to purchase basic supplies like toilet paper in 2020. Supply chain issues persist, and increasing numbers of sick employees are already causing staff shortages. It may be worth stocking up on a few items to keep yourself feeling warm and cozy as you face winter.

For me, warm and cozy takes many forms. My Tempur-Pedic® mattress cradles me while I sleep. Hot, black, French-pressed coffee warms me when I wake up. In between, I like to be armed with the following:

Soft scarves.

I live in a historic home with high ceilings and drafty windows. Even when one side of the house is warm, the other is not. Having a stash of soft scarves to wrap around my neck makes me feel more secure.

Microwavable heating pad.

These small pillows are usually filled with rice or corn. They come in a variety of sizes and prints. My current one has a removable cover that can be thrown in the washer. Not only are these great for sore muscles, the combination of heat and weight is calming. I use mine often to relax sore muscles or place over my solar plexus at night.

Peppermint tea bags.

For someone with a persnickety tummy, peppermint tea may be the relaxing relief you need. I like it both hot and iced.

Bath salts.

I love rosemary peppermint bath salts. While I’m not a big bath taker, there are times when nothing is more soothing than to soak in super-hot water that’s filling the air with a lovely aroma. It can feel like time is standing still. I usually turn off the lights and float.

Gluten-free treats.

Even if I don’t think about them often, I like having some kind of gluten-free treat available in the pantry or refrigerator. It’s more about feeling like what I want is available than it is about consuming a particular food. As some retailers stock fewer gluten-free options, I find myself feeling anxious that I may not be able to order my usual preferences.

Not having snacks would not be the end of the world. And I can always bake. But there’s a certain peace of mind that comes from knowing there’s something waiting for me in the pantry.

For you, warm comfort may come in the form of chicken soup, hot cinnamon rolls, or chili. It could come from binge-watching under a stack of fleece blankets. Or it could emerge from reading a gripping novel, a lyrical poem, or listening to a particular song.

It looks like we’re headed for more uncertainty as 2022 unfolds. Whatever you need to wrap yourself in warmth is worth stocking up on now!

Culinary Adventures

As we prepare for a new year, it’s a great time to formulate a plan for culinary adventures. Flight cancellations, staff shortages, and everchanging risk assessments may keep many of us home off-and-on in 2022. Culinary adventures are a great way to counter the monotony that comes with isolation.

For me, exploring new tastes seems like a natural progression of adapting to the past two years. I’m already experiencing changes in what appeals. The clothes I bought just prior to the pandemic suddenly feel wrong. They haven’t changed. Styles haven’t changed that much. But I have changed. That sometimes means changes in meal choices too.

Not only have my preferences shifted, much has changed: the flow of my workday, the price of takeout, and the availability of food favorites. Together these create the perfect environment for exploring something new.

What does a culinary adventure look like?

It will be different for everyone. And that’s the great part! It can be whatever you want it to be. Here are a few possibilities:

A Trip Around the World – Prepare favorite dishes from many countries.

  • This can be a great family activity. Decide how often you’ll prepare one of these meals (once a week, once a month…) and put it on everyone’s calendar.
  • Get a laminated world map and a dry erase marker. Draw a path across the continents, choosing specific countries along the way. Pick enough for 6 months or a year at your chosen interval.
  • Have the kids research the chosen locations. Use this research to determine what dish or dishes you’d like to prepare.
  • Locate recipes and gather the ingredients.
  • Prepare and serve the dish(es).
  • Include the history you’ve learned about your chosen meal in dinnertime conversation.
  • Have a scoring system so you can compare favorites later.

One Pot or Pan Meals – Challenge yourself, or your household, to use leftovers to create a one pot meal each week.

If you are already in the habit of doing this, change things up by buying new spice blends and trying unusual combinations. The Flavor Bible can be a great tool to guide your choices.

You can make this a more specific challenge by creating only soups, only salads, or only sandwiches.

Pasta Pairing – Prepare pasta with many different sauces and toppings.

  • Change up the pasta itself by making it yourself or choose some made from unusual ingredients or in interesting shapes.
  • Explore no sauce, red sauce, cream sauce, cheese sauce, mushroom sauce, etc.
  • Use a variety of meat and/or vegetables in combination with each of the sauces. Try combos you’ve never tried before. A search of restaurant menus or online recipes can help spark ideas.

Featured Ingredient – Choose a specific ingredient and build a dish or menu around it.

This can be something simple that you always eat made or served in new, creative ways. We get in such a habit of cooking things in the same manner, a few simple changes can brighten up the menu.

  • Consider turning peanuts into Pad Thai or peanut butter into Satay Sauce.
  • Stuff red bell peppers with spaghetti and meatballs.
  • Serve cheese all day in ways you don’t normally serve it – baked into a pastry for breakfast, as soup for lunch, in cheesy baked rice for dinner, and in a blintz for dessert.
  • Use chocolate for something other than dessert. Make it part of your appetizers by dipping strawberries in it or adding it to bacon wrapped dates. Make it part of your entrée by making a mole sauce or dusting your steak with cocoa.

Change Your Environment.

Perhaps you don’t even need to change the food to change its impact. Experiment with the environment instead.

  • Serve the very same dish but change the background music. Next time, change the tablecloth or the china. Serve it again outside on paper plates. Add fresh flowers. Change the lighting. Make the room hotter or colder. Then try different combinations of all of these.
  • Make notes after each meal to determine the environmental factors that create the best experience for each person in the family. Ambiance will affect some more than others. This can be a fun experiment for learning about each other.

Any culinary adventure can be tailored to fit your family and the choices are limitless.

Creating culinary adventures can be fun. It can be a great focus for family time. And it can help break the monotony when staying at home.

Leaky Gut

Is leaky gut a real thing? A few years ago, I went to a gluten-free conference that focused on adrenal fatigue and leaky gut as the cause of many symptoms. Today, I want to explore the theory of leaky gut.

There are some conditions and medications that increase intestinal permeability. This happens when the layer of cells that line the bowel (mucosal barrier) becomes less effective at preventing large molecules and germs from passing from the bowel into the bloodstream.

Many alternative medicine professionals have seized on this as the cause of food allergies, migraine, chronic fatigue syndrome, asthma, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, MS, scleroderma, eczema, and autism. Whether or not there is a direct connection to these diseases, there may be some basis for concern about leaky gut.

An unhealthy gut lining that allows partially digested food, toxins, or bugs to pass through it can trigger inflammation and change the gut flora. There are many studies showing a relationship between altered intestinal bacteria and the development of some common chronic diseases.

This is of special concern to those who live with celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, and irritable bowel syndrome which are known to be associated with increased intestinal permeability. Leaky gut may also pose a risk for those with HIV/Aids, cystic fibrosis, type 1 diabetes, or those receiving chemotherapy, radiotherapy to the abdomen, or immunosuppressants. Suffering from infections like salmonella, norovirus, and giardiasis can also make a patient more susceptible to any possible detrimental effects of leaky gut.

Summing this up, leaky gut exists in everyone to some degree, but may be more pronounced in those who take certain medications or have specific medical conditions. We are beginning to learn the extent to which this may have a deleterious effect or contribute to disease processes although some studies seem to indicate that intestinal permeability may lead to inflammation.

While the experts work out the exact risks of intestinal permeability, what can you do to mitigate the effect of inflammation that may result from leaky gut?

The easy answer is, change your habits to be more gut friendly. Eliminate things that could be inflammatory – alcohol, processed food, and any food to which you have an allergy or sensitivity. Avoid medications like aspirin, ibuprofen, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

Eat a variety of nutritious, fresh food. Pay attention to the effect of foods high in fructose and limit them if they prove to be irritating. Drink plenty of water. Reduce stress as much as possible.

I know it’s infuriating to read that leaky gut exists but may or may not cause symptoms. It’s equally annoying to discover that the best way to combat leaky gut is to prevent or mitigate it with healthy habits.

And yet, that’s where we are. And it’s where we often end up with autoimmune disorders. The symptoms are wide-ranging. The disorders difficult to diagnose. Diagnostic tests, imprecise or unreliable. And even though a healthy diet can help, we’d all prefer a definitive miracle cure.

Perhaps instead of healthy diets, we should start encouraging scream therapy!