We’ve all been there: lunch is delayed and all of a sudden something that would have been met with mild irritation: a shrug of the shoulders or a shake of the head, becomes cause for a slammed door and a yelling match. Or perhaps you’re more familiar with the disappearing family-sized block of chocolate: promising a dizzying sugar high, only to be matched by the fatigue and low mood associated with a crash in blood sugar mere moments later.
The connection between food and mood, however, doesn’t end with ‘hanger’ or, what I like to call the 'Cadbury come-down'. What we eat is intimately connected to how we feel via the construction of special brain messengers, known as neurotransmitters, occurring in large part from the digestion of the foods we eat. For example, for the body to build serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with happiness, the diet must contain foods to provide the building blocks of serotonin, as well as the ‘worker bees’ to make sure that the building blocks come together.
Yet even with the best intentions and well-constructed diets, if we’re not digesting properly, the body’s ability to break down foods into their constituent parts to then rebuild the nutrients into neurotransmitters (like serotonin), will be compromised, which can have a longer-term impact on mood.
Do you remember that time you were confronted by a tiger on your walk home from work?
Me either. But physically or emotionally; stress, fright, pain, anxiety, and anger (among other things), can activate what’s known as the fight/flight response. The fight/flight response is under control of the sympathetic nervous system: it’s an automatic response to a stressful event that is out of our conscious control. You might recognise the activation of this response by the way your pupils dilate; your skin becomes cool, pale, and clammy; your heart rate increases; you might start to sweat; and your mouth goes dry. These are all signs that the body is prioritising immediate survival over general physiological functions, like digestion. Generally, the body returns to normal once the threat has passed (i.e. once you've calmed down).
But it’s not just tigers roaming the streets; day-to-day life as we experience it today is stressful, face-paced, and demanding. Deadlines, back pain, work and family pressures, and jam-packed ‘to-do’ lists might not necessarily present a life-or-death emergency, but they can still be capable of initiating the fight/flight response, and they generally don't resolve themselves after a few minutes. Stress easily becomes chronic and this can be bad news for our digestion long-term, which remains compromised. Prolonged stress and an overactive fight/flight response can impact mood via the lack of available building blocks and worker bees for the construction of neurotransmitters.
Eat with your head, not just your mouth…
One of the simplest, safest and best ways to improve digestion is to eat mindfully. No digestive enzymes required, just you and a little bit of quiet and concentration. This means that when you’re eating, you’re just focused on eating.
Still not getting it? Here are some of the things that you should consider avoiding while you’re eating:
Watching the news
By all means keep up to date with current affairs and world news, but choose another time to do so. Watching or listening to distressing news content can kick the fight/flight response back into action, diverting the body’s resources away from digestion.
Thinking about the harsh words from your boss/friend/parent/co-worker
Again, distressing thoughts, feelings, and memories can impact on digestion. You have probably felt this for yourself if you’ve lost your appetite following an argument.
Rushing from one place to another or sitting at your desk desperately trying to multitask
Think about it: there’s probably nothing that is more important than nourishing your body and mind. Stop what you’re doing and take 15 minutes to eat properly.
Thinking about the argument you’re going to have with your partner for leaving his/her wet towel on the bathroom floor again (no? just me?)
See above, let it go and leave it for another time.
Scrolling through social media
The main principle of mindfulness is to direct your attention wholly toward what you’re doing, in this case the act of eating and the experiences associated.
Thinking about calories/fat/sugar and working yourself into a state of anxiety about the food you’re consuming
For some, this can be inherently difficult whether due to an eating disorder or a complicated relationship with food. Take baby steps, instead of fretting about the perceived ‘unhealthy’ nature of the food, concentrate instead on the nourishment and the vitamins, minerals and essential nutrients that the food is delivering to the body.
Digestion is crucial for nourishment…
The essence of digestion is that the food we eat is broken down into smaller parts: the body keeps what it needs in terms of nutritional requirements, and what we don’t require for growth and repair is converted to waste and excreted. When we’re stressed, as stated previously, the energy usually reserved for proper digestion, may be re-directed toward survival, compromising our digestive and restorative processes.
How might you know if this is occurring?:
Interestingly, we tend to make assumptions that these types of symptoms are related to food intolerances, and whilst they may be, they may also be directly related to our mood and surroundings when eating. These are all signs within the gastrointestinal tract that we’re not digesting food properly or adequately, resulting in varying forms of discomfort.
Start at your next meal…
You can find mindful eating guiding recordings all over the internet, but even just starting with your senses is a great place to begin:
Sight: they say you eat with your eyes but beyond this, consider where has the food come from. Is it something that has taken hours of sunlight and warmth to end up with you?
Smell: who doesn’t love the tantalising smell of onions and garlic sizzling away? Take a few seconds to enjoy it without rushing onto your next task.
Taste: be aware of the increase in saliva in the mouth when you’re getting ready to eat. Does the taste bring back any happy memories?
Feel: Be aware of how the food is making you feel: physically and emotionally. Consider that after every meal you've taken in the weight of what you ate.
Beyond this, try and chew your food until it’s the consistency of baby food. Your mouth (and teeth) are the beginning of the digestive tract and ensuring you chew properly will have a flow-on effect with the rest of the digestive system. Good digestion is important for the breakdown of food, absorption of essential vitamins and nutrients, and removal of waste; all of which have a role to play in the maintenance of healthy mood.
Mindfulness associated with eating has shown promising results in trials featuring obesity, eating disorders, and diabetes management. In addition, mindfulness can be a powerful tool in other areas, such as depression, stress, physical function, chronic pain, sleep, and overall quality of life.
Persistent low mood may require more than good digestion. If you’re affected by low mood, feelings of anxiety, or digestive discomfort please get in touch and make an appointment. Evidence-based, personalised, and targeted nutritional and herbal medicine can make a world of difference.
Fung, T., Long, M., Hung, P. & Cheung, L. (2016). An expanded model for mindful eating for health promotion and sustrainability: issues and challenges for dietetics practice. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 116(7), 1081-1086.
Gropper, S., Smith, J. & Groff, J. (2009). Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism (5th ed.). Wadsworth: Australia.
Miller, C., Kristeller, J., Headings, A. & Nagaraja, H. (2014). Comparison of a mindful eating intervention to diabetes self-management intervention among adults with type 2 diabetes: a randomised controlled trial. Health Education & Behaviour, 41(2), 145-154.
O’Reilly, G., Cook, L., Spruijt-Metz, D., Black, D. (2014). Mindfulness-based interventions for obesity-related eating behaviours: a literature review. Obesity Review, 15(6), 453-461.