I’ve been talking a lot lately about the interconnectedness of digestion, stress, mood, and health. What we eat and how we digest it can have a huge impact on how we feel and think. Equally, the things we are experiencing influence our digestion. We all know this – we get butterflies in the stomach when we’re nervous, or constipation or diarrhea under heavy stress.
There has been some amazing work in the last few years about the connections between what and how we eat and our ability to function mentally and emotionally. More and more studies are finding that what happens in the gut during digestion is critical to almost every bodily function.
About 60 percent of our serotonin, an important mood regulating chemical, is produced in the gut. About 80 percent of our immune function happens in the digestive system. Hormones are regulated by the foods we eat, and by how well they are flushed out along with other waste products.
Eating junk food and living under stress for prolonged periods breaks down these incredible, finely tuned systems. Eating well can improve almost every aspect of our physical, mental, and emotional lives. For instance, eating probiotic foods like yogurt and lactofermented pickles has been shown to reduce depression and anxiety, and Vitamin D deficiency has been associated with depression, chronic fatigue, and muscle pain.
Good nutrition can be a powerful stress management tool. But I also want to talk about the other side of the equation. Even more work has been done on the health benefits of meditation and similar activities. It’s easy to see how breathing exercises might improve anxiety, asthma, heart disease, high blood pressure, and sleep problems. But meditation has also been shown to improve digestion, depression, overall mood and immunity.
One of the coolest studies I’ve seen recently showed that joy and awe are some of the best anti-inflammatory tools we have. http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2015/02/02/anti-inflammatory/ The study recommends adding nature, art, and spirituality to your health regimen. “That awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests that the things we do to experience these emotions – a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art – has a direct influence upon health and life expectancy,” said University of California- Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, a co-author of the study.
This idea just totally tickles me. I have made a conscious decision to spend time, money, and effort on getting the best diet that I can, so that I have as much energy, resilience, and focus, as much health as possible. But my relationship with exercise and meditation are a bit more tenuous. This study gives me permission, and incentive, to do pleasurable things that lead to joy and awe – play more, hike more, visit museums, watch a sunset with a loved one, be curious.
Most of us were taught that being busy and getting things done is the most important thing. If you finish all of your work then, maybe, you will have time to relax a bit. But it turns out that joy and awe are critical to both mental and physical health. We have to learn to set aside time, money, and effort for pleasure (gasp!).
Self Love is something many of us have great difficulty with. Certainly, very few of us were raised to value pleasure as highly as busyness. Allowing ourselves to choose a yummy, connected, health-giving life - and to do that without guilt - is one of the most important acts of self love we can make.
We can begin to make the shift by taking small steps. I frequently recommend naps and baths. Usually the first time I suggest that to a friend or client who is under a lot of stress they look at me really funny. Adults don’t take naps and baths! Then slowly their face begins to change as they realize that I’ve just given them permission to do something loving for themselves.
What if we felt empowered to take acts of self love on a daily basis? What might change for you if you felt joy and awe regularly? I am going to try to find a way to eat dark chocolate, in a hot tub, while watching the sunset with my lover next weekend. What takes your breath away? I hereby give you permission to love yourself by finding that thing that turns you on. Purely for health reasons, of course ;)