Perhaps the most fundamental place where we can observe the profound relationship of body and soul when it comes to nutrition is in the stress/relaxation continuum. Can you recall what happens when you eat during a state of anxiety or stress? Most people report such symptoms as heartburn, cramping, gas, digestive pains, belching, and intense hunger. During stress the body automatically shifts into the classic fight-or- flight response. This feature of the central nervous system (CNS) evolved over millions of years into a brilliant safety mechanism that supports us during life threatening events— hostile attackers, natural disasters, and anything we must quickly evade or forcibly overcome.
In the moment the stress response is activated, heart rate jumps up, blood pressure increases, respiration quickens, hormones that help provide immediate energy such as cortisol are released into the circulatory system, blood flow is rerouted away from the midsection and toward the head for quick thinking and to the arms and legs for the power necessary for fighting or fleeing. Most importantly, the digestive system shuts down. It makes perfect sense that when you’re fending off an angry gorilla, you don’t need to waste energy digesting your Froot Loops. All the body’s metabolic functions must be geared directly for survival.
So picture yourself anxiously rushing from your apartment to the office while munching on a muffin, or grabbing a fast lunch while you’re overloaded with work and thinking about everything but food, or eating a meal when you’re upset because the universe is being uncooperative about conforming to your humble demands. During these moments, the body hasn’t a clue that what we’re experiencing is not life threatening because it is genetically programmed to initiate the fight-or-flight response the instant the brain perceives stress. This means that, depending on the intensity of the stress we’re experiencing, each of the physiological changes just listed that characterize the fight-or- flight response is activated, including some degree of digestive shutdown. So if you’ve ever eaten in an anxious state and had the feeling afterwards that food is just sitting in your stomach, that’s exactly what it’s doing. It’s waiting between several minutes and several hours for the body to kick back in to normal digestive output.
The key to understanding the profound link between nutritional metabolism and stress is the central nervous system. The portion of the CNS that exerts the greatest influence in gastrointestinal function, the autonomic nervous system (ANS), is responsible for getting the stomach churning, the enzymatic secretions in the digestive process flowing, and keeping the absorption of nutrients in the bloodstream on the move. The ANS also instructs the body when not to be digesting, such as when there’s no food in the belly or when we’re in fight-or- flight mode.
Recall that the two subdivisions of the ANS, which help it accomplish its dual task of digestive arousal and digestive inhibition, are the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches. The sympathetic branch activates the stress response and sup- presses digestive activity. The parasympathetic branch relaxes the body and activates digestion. In other words, the same part of the brain that turns on stress turns off digestion. And conversely, the same part of the brain that turns on the relaxation response turns on full, healthy digestive power. This is perhaps the most profoundly important yet overlooked nutritional law etched into our DNA.
That’s because we can eat the healthiest meal in the solar system, but if it’s eaten during an anxious state, its nutritional value is dramatically diminished. Our mood has affected our food. Salivary enzyme content in the mouth is reduced, the breakdown of protein, fat, and carbohydrate macromolecules in the stomach is impaired, and blood flow to the small intestines is decreased as much as four-fold, which translates into decreased nutrient assimilation, which is another way of saying increased nutrient excretion. In addition, the stress response can leave us with increased blood cholesterol, exaggerated platelet aggregation, salt retention, elevated cortisol and insulin, insulin resistance, decreased levels of growth hormone, thyroid hormone, and sex hormones, gastrointestinal reflux, gut flora die-off, impaired gastrointestinal immunity, increased oxidative stress and inflammation, and decreased mitochondrial function to name just a few. Eating healthy food is only half of the story of good nutrition. Being in the ideal state to digest and assimilate food is the other half.
So when we prescribe a diet or a supplement regimen for our clients, or when we medicate their gastrointestinal distress, have we addressed the mind-body connection? Have we asked them if they inhabit a world of chronic, stress induced, low-level digestive shutdown? Have we prescribed Vitamin T—time for meals? Have we considered Vitamin O—the oxygen delivered via hearty breathing that creates optimum cellular metabolism and a relaxed and nourishing meal? If not, then it’s high time that we doctor the soul of the eater.
THE FRENCH PARADOX RE-VISITED
One of the more fascinating examples that illustrate the metabolic distinctions between relaxed and rushed eating comes from our fellow eaters in Europe. Have you ever been to France? Did you notice how the French “do it” when it comes to food? Most people asked this question comment that the French take a few hours for lunch, they drink a generous amount of red wine with their meals, they eat lots of cheese and high fat foods, their portions tend to be smaller, their midday meal is the largest of the day, they’re fanatics about using fresh foods and high quality ingredients, they don’t exercise as much as Americans, they smoke a lot, they’re thinner, and they dine and celebrate their meals as opposed to eat and run. Until recently, the French didn’t even have a word or term for “fast food.”
Compare this to Americans who often take only several minutes for breakfast and lunch as opposed to an hour or more, who have dinner as their largest meal of the day rather than lunch, who don’t, on the whole, drink wine with meals, insist on high quality ingredients, and make each meal a cultural celebration to remember. Americans also eat larger portions, are more apt to exercise, and have larger bodies.
A number of years back, our researchers began comparing health in America and health in France and they came up with some eye-opening news. What we discovered was that the French have a significantly higher per capita consumption of fat than Americans. According to our nutritional know-how they should therefore have higher blood cholesterol levels, and a higher rate of heart disease, but as it turns out these rates for the French are significantly lower. This was as earth shaking an event to the scientific community as a UFO landing. Heart disease and blood cholesterol are supposed to increase as people eat more fat, certainly not go the other way.
We put our best medical minds to work on this dilemma and looked at as many variables as we could. The conclusion: There must be a mystery ingredient in the French diet that gives them their healthy edge. And the magic dietary bullet is: Red wine. Days later, the front page of major newspapers across the country told us, “Drink more wine.” This, of course, caused a major stir because it contradicted so many other studies that told us how alcohol kills brain cells, suppresses the immune sys- tem, damages the liver, mutates fetuses, and otherwise wreaks havoc on society through alcoholism. Who to believe? Rather then give up on the wine altogether; the next logical approach seemed to be to look for something in the wine. So we isolated its “active” chemical component—the red wine polyphenols. This was the supposed X-factor that gave the French their enviable edge. The final step to resolving the alcohol controversy was to isolate the polyphenols out of the wine, encapsulate them, bottle them, and sell them in health food stores across the land.
The problem solved, researchers could now sleep soundly knowing that little red wine polyphenols pills are all that stands between us Americans and the heart-healthy French. But let’s take a closer look. No one really considered the big picture. First and foremost, the French consistently eat under parasympathetic dominance—the physiological state of relaxation and maxi- mum digestive function. Even if they are stressed out, taking a generous amount of time to eat a meal, savor it, and schmooze with other Frenchmen and Frenchwomen probably helps them let go. And if that doesn’t ease their tensions, then the red wine certainly will.
Though the fast food culture is gradually taking hold, Europeans on the whole aren’t doing power lunches like we practice in America. The context for their eating isn’t business. It’s pleasure. As a culture they place a high value not only on food, but on nourishment. Eating isn’t some nuisance biological requirement to get out of the way. They take time during the day to relax, celebrate, and acknowledge the deep human need to dine. It’s not merely the polyphenols in the red wine that keeps their cholesterol level and heart disease in check. It’s primarily their parasympathetic nervous system. It’s the optimum state of digestion and assimilation that they consistently eat under as a result of their frame of mind, and their attention to the soulful nature of nourishment.
There’s at least one more piece that’ll help us fill in the French Paradox puzzle. It’s about quality. Absent from most of our enlightened scientific dialogue around nutrition is the concept of quality. For too long, we stuck to the erroneous notion that all fat was created equal, that all protein was the same, and that all carbohydrates would eventually look to the body like the same molecule of sugar. We’re on a fast learning curve as of late. We’ve been making the distinctions between healthy essential fats and the trans variety -mass produced, chemically reversed, ant-nutritious ones. We’ve also been getting more savvy around the undesirable effects of stripped down refined carbohydrates on human health.
The bottom line is that quality counts, and we need more of it. Yes, the French do eat more fat, but they’re receiving more essential fatty acids (EFAs)—quality fat. In every major nutritional study that’s ever been done comparing the diets of industrialized nations—refined, mass produced and poor quality food—with the diets of traditional cultures—fresh, whole, locally cultivated and vibrant—those on traditional diets fare dramatically better in every major category of health.
Quality means any or all of the following: real; fresh; organic; gourmet; lovingly crafted; home made; locally produced; heir- loom varieties; nutrient dense; low in human-made toxins; grown and marketed with honesty and integrity; tasteful; filled with true flavor, not virtual ones that mask the absence of nutrients and vitality. Quality means that care and consciousness permeate a food, and that the food itself has a good story to tell.
At the big picture level, the quality of French fare is rather high. Indeed, their cuisine can often make ours seem like pet food. They haven’t traditionally called their food “natural” or “organic”, yet much of it is. It’s been grown on the same small local farms for generations with little pesticide and herbicide use. Subsequently, their food is low in xenotoxins and high in nutrient density. And perhaps more to the point, it tastes better. Those who compare the experience of eating the most humble fruits and vegetables from Italian and French markets know that their tomatoes, apples, carrots and the like have a flavor experience surprising in its depth.
We get what we pay for. Why expect a car manufactured with the cheapest parts, hastily assembled, and designed without any care for the needs of the driver to give us the ride of our life? As yet, science doesn’t have a well-articulated way to measure the value and the effects of the quality of food on the human body. Admittedly, we still have our training wheels on in the nutrition business and more accustomed to maneuvering ourselves around nutrient values. When we nutrition experts lay down the law about how the value of a food is exclusively revealed in its’ nutrient profile, it all sounds so scientific. And it is. Except that this measure of a meal’s true worth is limited, and scientifically incomplete. Perhaps when the artistry of food is finally elevated to its rightful place, then the science of it will speak with more wisdom and clarity. This is not so much a different way to see food and nutrition, as it is a whole new approach to the world and our place in it.
Excerpted from a guest editorial I wrote for the unique and prestigious research journal – Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine.
Founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating
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