For my first-ever blog, I want to say something about the fundamental link between how we behave with food and the effect it has not only on our physical symptoms - ie. weight, digestion and energy - but also on our thoughts, feelings and ways of relating.
Personally, I didn’t pay attention to the link between nutrition and mental wellbeing for many, many years. This was despite my own experience of the connection between what I was eating and how I was feeling. In my early 30s, I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and was badly affected by joint pain and chronic fatigue. At that point in my life, I was a stressed corporate banker often opting for typical convenience food that was slowly but surely adding the pounds. I was also the daughter of a wonderful, but depressive mother who suffered greatly with ulcers and ultimately bowel cancer. I myself had already suffered two deep depressive episodes and questioned if I was genetically destined to follow her medical path.
Following my rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis, I cut back on meat and dairy products, stopped eating processed food and gluten, and took the decision to eat considerably more fresh produce. Over a period of three months, the joint pain and fatigue vanished! While I raved about my physical transformation in terms of weight loss and pain relief, I hardly credited my change in diet for my vastly improved psychological health.
It was only as the science caught up with my positive, holistic, "felt" experience that I came to understand so much more about how our mental health can be affected - and connected - by the actual physical mechanisms activated by our food choices.
The condition of our gut micro-biome - that veritable zoo of trillions of bacteria and enzymes that supports digestion and regulates our weight, is also responsible for the production of essential neurotransmitters (including serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and others) which contribute to our emotional wellbeing.
Adverse childhood events (ACE), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and continuing, low level stress caused by relationships, finances, work - and even Brexit! - can lead to excessive levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which can also compromise the delicate balance of our micro-biome, in turn depleting our essential neurotransmitters.
It seems so obvious now, that both mind and body will thrive when we feed ourselves well, resist the CRAP (Calorie Rich And Processed) and work through historic and present day causes of anxiety.
To consolidate my learning in this area, I obtained a Certificate in Plant Based Nutrition from Cornell University and I bring this into my work as a therapist. During the assessment stage with my clients, I will ask about their attitude, preferences and sensitivities to food.
Unsurprisingly, a tricky relationship with food often accompanies tricky interpersonal and intrapersonal difficulties. In many cases, physical manifestations including nausea, racing heart, and IBS-like symptoms occur that are often longstanding but appear to have no apparent physical cause.
Alongside our exploration of presenting issues (anxiety being a leading presentation), some clients choose to make simple adjustments to their eating habits, such as eating a generous daily serving of green leafy vegetables, which inevitably complement the emotional work.
One of my clients summed up the parallel process beautifully when she said: "I did not know whether my improved energy and positivity was the result of resolving long-held trauma or eating better - but I’m grateful for both." Another commented: "As I lost a few pounds, I regained my old self," while another suggested: "When I really started to look after myself by eating better, I had more energy to face the dark stuff."
While it's certainly necessary to acknowledge the important role of allopathic/conventional medicine when clinically justified, I'd like to suggest Hippocrates, often considered the father of Western medicine, was spot on when he said: "Let food be thy medicine." In my view, his words apply equally to our mental health as to our physical condition. He offered a truly holistic approach.