Gut Health Part 3: Shame and Digestion

Uncategorized Dec 19, 2017

I'm taking a brief detour off of the well tread path of science and "health" to venture into the brain waves/patterns of thinking/psychology behind food. 

Last week I shared about the gut brain connection, emphasizing that our gut has its very own nervous system. It is capable of communicating information to the brain, and the brain is capable of communicating information to the gut. Moreover, 90% of the communication is happening from the gut to the brain.

Remember the vagus nerve?

The vagus nerve runs from the medula (the last part of the brainstem) all the way down to the gut, passing through the heart and touching various organs like the lungs and the liver on its journey. The vagus nerve operates at a level that is beyond your conscious awareness; breathing? It's autonomic, meaning it happens whether or not you intend it to; that said, you can also bring conscious awareness to the inhale and the exhale. In contrast, the vagus controls the "rest and digest" nervous system via "vagal tone," which is the term given to the ability of your vagal response to relax and calm down, returning your systems to your "normal" settings, after a stressful encounter. The stronger your vagal tone, the quicker your body can come down. While still autonomic, you may feel you have less control of your vagal tone than you do your breath.

But... is this an unchangeable truth?

Our thoughts are powerful. Our thoughts about food. Our bodies. In yoga, we call this "the mental modifications of the mind-stuff" or the "chitta vritti" aka "the monkey chatter of the mind." Science has recently begun exploring this on a more mainstream level, and you may even have heard the term "neuroplasticity" bandied about. To be clear, I'm not an expert on neuroplasticity, but I do find the entire subject fascinating and empowering.

In short and very brief terms, neuroplasticity is based on the notion that the brain is "plastic," or it can continue to change throughout the course of your life. Established science marks the end of childhood development as the end of growth and after that, it has been the prevailing school of thought that the brain remains relatively static.

i.e. "You can't teach an old dog new tricks."

Which... is less than empowering. The old way enforces the idea that "I am what I am and that's all that I am," and I'm not going to change these habits, even if I think I might want to. It's rather... final.

Neuroplasticity, instead, introduces the notion that the brain is flexible, and we can learn new patterns. New ways of being. 

Here's the main message of today: by cultivating a mind that is free from the bondage of the "mental modifications of the mind-stuff" or the "chitta vritti" aka "the monkey chatter of the mind," you're actually working on strengthening the tone of your vagus nerve and quickening your body's recovery from a stressful encounter.

More simply put: your conscious thoughts can be altered, and by altering your conscious thoughts (neuroplasticity), you can effect change in the autonomic (unconscious) operations of your body (i.e. vagal tone).

I'm really beating around the bush here, though, because what I really want to talk about is shame.

There is a LOT of shame in the wellness sphere. Size shaming. Food choice shaming. You're sick? Well, it's probably your fault. Depressed and feeling lackluster? Yeah. Probably the food you’re eating.

Newsflash: IT ISN’T YOUR FAULT. Sure, food IS important, I talk about that all the time. But… wouldn’t we all rather feel empowered than ashamed?

A lot of "health culture" these days (think: clean eating) is based in shaming others for their food choices, elevating certain foods and demonizing others, and treating food as though it is some sort of barometer for the value you place on your life.

Don't get me wrong, I believe in food as medicine. I believe in whole food. I believe in eating well; nutrient dense foods, mostly plants. But, as I tell ALL of my clients: I WILL NEVER TELL YOU WHAT TO EAT. And I will NEVER shame you for your choices. I also believe in enjoying a burger on a warm summer night with some french fries and maybe a cold beer. I also believe in birthday cake and ice cream. I believe in King Cake and savoring your favorite holiday dessert.

You know what shame does? It makes you doubt yourself. It makes you stress out. If you can't trust yourself, who can you trust?

THIS is where the work I do comes into play. THIS is healthy hedonism. This is how not only WHAT we eat but HOW we eat becomes a factor.

The goal, then, is to learn to trust yourself. With a solid understanding of your body and also some food education, you can begin to discern your personal truth amidst the noise.

Let's bring this back to neuroplasticity and the "chitta vritti," and how this links to the work I do with women.

Everything you need is truly within you.

As you continue to commit yourself to discovering your personal path, you’ll give yourself over to the ability to relinquish willpower and control and bravely step into experimentation.  Can you imagine allowing yourself to challenge preconceived notions, food beliefs, and truths you’ve come to accept (those that you are certain of) about yourself and the world that maybe aren’t actually factual (maybe they are, but the goal here is to get curious)?

Get curious about yourself. Get curious about others. Get curious about the conversations you find yourself a part of. Get curious about the things you read on social media, in the news, hear on television.  

Ask questions. Play devil’s advocate. Challenge yourself and others.

Seek your truth. Speak your truth. And want what you want.

This is all as important to your digestion as chewing and taking a probiotic.


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