Have you ever heard a story that inspired you or changed your life? One that lifted your spirits or gave you hope? The stories that move us are like powerful drugs that ignite our metabolism. There’s a hidden narrator within each of us that puts a spin on every aspect of our journey. And that spin – whether it’s positive and life affirming or negative and nihilistic – sets our metabolism in motion and creates a biochemistry to mirror our inner world. As we become more adept at discerning the secret stories we unwittingly tell ourselves, and the more willing we are to author a generous and healing tale, our metabolism rises according to the new standards we set. Let’s take a look at how we can harness the nutritional power of story.
The Story of DNA
Perhaps the most important and telling part of a visit to your doctor will be the taking of your history – your story. Who you are: the family you’re born into, what you eat, drink and dream; where you live, how you work and play, your relationships – every detail about us is a window into our metabolism. Our entire history is our story, and our story is everything. Perhaps the most fundamental storybook found in the human library is our DNA.
At the molecular level, our genetic material tells a timeless and entertaining tale. The tale our DNA tells comes in twenty-three chapters, also known as chromosome pairs. The 24,000 or so genes within the twenty-three chromosome chapters make up the subplots, characters, twists, and turns in our human book of life. Fortunately, there are multiple endings and possibilities in our genetic destiny because we choose so many of the variables that influence the expression of our genes – what we eat, how we exercise, where we reside, how we live and love.
If you believe in the science of genetics, then you believe that the phenomenon of story is built into the body and is the bottom-line reality of who we are. If Shakespeare was right, and I suspect he was, that indeed “the whole world is a stage,” then the roles we play and the chemistry of who we are can only be one and the same. Like it or not, we’re characters in a larger play and co-authors in the whole affair. The tales we weave are the foodstuff that fuels the body and animates our experience. Our story sits in the director’s chair of each cell and organizes the molecular production crew to create the movie that is our life. The effects of story are felt from the densest level of biology to the most rarefied atmosphere of the soul.
What I’m suggesting is this: DNA is nothing more than the biochemical equivalent of a story, and our personal story is the subtle equivalent of DNA. In other words, matter and energy are once again playfully exchanging their clothes. Fortunately, you don’t have to rely on the mapping of the human genome to receive the benefits of genetic engineering. Changing your story is a much safer and saner method for redirecting your DNA, and hence the course of your metabolism.
If you’d like to see the metabolic power of story in action, take a look at one of the most treasured possessions you have – your personality. Contrary to popular belief, neither you nor I can legitimately claim to be one person. Each of us is more like a crowd. We’re a collection of personalities and archetypes – mother, child, sister, lover, bitch, goddess, virgin, whore, father, son, brother, warrior, king, killer, victim, clown. The list, of course, is endless. Each of these characters has their own story, and each plays a part in service to the larger story of our life. Indeed, many psychologists are now suggesting that having multiple personalities, so to speak, is the most accurate model of how we truly function. In other words, the guy you call “me” is actually a bunch of different people, and who “me” is depends on who is in the drivers seat at the time.
Amazingly, researchers have discovered that in patients with classic multiple personality disorder, each personality has a unique and distinct physiology. Measurable variations can be seen in heart rate, blood pressure, galvanic skin response, and hormone levels depending on which personality is predominant at the time. One individual was a clinically diagnosed insulin-dependent diabetic, but only in one specific personality. Another patient had a severe allergy to citrus fruits that would cause her to break out into hives, but again, only in one personality. The researcher could visually observe the hives disappearing as the patient made a switch to another persona.
If it sounds far-fetched that each separate personality that populates such individuals has a different metabolism, consider how science has already elucidated that every mode of consciousness – waking, sleeping, dreaming, stress, relaxation, and so on – has its own unique chemistry. Because we are biochemical beings, every cognitive state has its biochemical equivalent.
What the multiple personality patients teach us is that the story we live and the metabolism we experience are intricately linked. At any given meal, or in any given moment, one of the many characters that inhabit our inner sanctum sits at the head of the table. It has its own peculiar habits, its own quirky needs, and its unique nutritional metabolism.
Jeanette reports that she loves sponge cake, but the sugar it contains send her into hypoglycemic response, so she avoids it altogether. When she visits her grandmother, however, sponge cake is always served, and it isn’t a problem for her. During her childhood, grandma and sponge cake were one and the same, and the memories of those visits are special for Jeanette. Could it be that her “granddaughter personality” has a healthier blood-sugar regulation?
Sarah, a business consultant, remarked: “I’ve got two stomachs – a kosher one and a non-kosher one. At home I strictly follow Jewish dietary law. If I eat a non-kosher food in my apartment, I feel absolutely nauseous and sick. But during business luncheons I don’t always have the luxury of keeping kosher, so something inside me takes over and I can handle any food without a problem.”
So the important question here is this:
When you sit down to a meal – Who is eating?
Jack, a twenty-nine-year-old engineer, complained about poor digestion, heartburn, and an inability to lose weight. He had a family history of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, so losing fifteen pounds was a priority. The problem was, Jack had no willpower. He’d eat right for several days, at which time his digestion would feel fine. But then he’d lapse into a high cream cheese, high potato chip, and low-vegetable diet, at which point he’d experience intense gastric upset. Jack’s methodical engineer’s mind couldn’t figure out why he would eat against his own wishes.
I saw that some part of Jack was clearly getting in his own way and suggested that for several weeks, before beginning any meal or snack, he ask himself one simple question: “who’s eating?” I explained the possibility that different archetypal characters people our inner world and that it might serve Jack well to identify exactly who was at the table at any given moment in time. I requested that he not fight any of these voices, that he not judge them or overpower them or change them in any way. He just needed to observe and gather information.
Jack was both amused and intrigued. He took the advice to heart and here’s what he discovered: “When I checked into see who was eating, I saw that the rebel in me is always there when I’m breaking the rules, and it’s the rebel that gets heartburn. It takes over whenever anyone tries to boss me around or give me rules to live by. I always thought I had no willpower with food but I really do – it’s inside my rebel. I just needed to find a way for the rebel to work for me, not against me.”
In a short period of time Jack learned to listen to his inner rebel, to dialogue with it, understand and accept it, and give the rebel what it needed so that Jack could have what he needed. As long as Jack let the rebel break a rule once or twice a week, everyone was happy. He saw that it was the rebel who actually supplied him with his strength and his feisty nature. His digestive issues significantly cleared within weeks and his weight dropped slowly over the course of the next four months.
Think about some of the many personalities you have – the different personas you adopt around friends and family, at work and on vacation, and the hidden sides of you that emerges when circumstances are just right. How do these personalities differ in their choice of foods? Are there noticeable changes in your body when you’re in certain personas? Do you notice changes in digestion? And can you see how the phenomenon of “multiple personalities” might affect your everyday nutritional metabolism?
As always, I look forward to hearing your stories.
Founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating
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