Last week I sat down with a new client. He’s in his forties. He is educated and successful. He’s a guys guy in every sense of the word. He is married. He has three amazing children. He is by his own account doing well in all phases of his life. He even competes in the mother of all endurance competitions, the Ironman. He knows how to lay out a big, intimidating goal and attain it. But there is this one thing that he hasn’t quite gotten right and that’s his relationship with food which is why we are working together. So I did what I always do in these situations. I got out my white board and I began to explain how the brain is wired, how it gets stuck in old patterns and how it can be rewired. I explained how to put the science to work so we can begin to unravel those stories and beliefs in his head. The first step in a challenge or any change for that matter is to understand, befriend and slowly reorient the internal narrator in our head. My client was probably expecting an explanation of his macros or a list of low calorie snacks. He might have been hoping for a recipe for a Superfood Smoothie. But after almost three decades in health and wellness education, this is the where the secret to all transformation lies.
Dan Harris in his book “10 Percent Happier” wrote about his experience with his own personal narrator. He described it like this, “The voice comes braying in as soon as we open our eyes in the morning and heckles us all day long with an air horn. It’s a fever swamp of urges, desires and judgments. It’s fixated on the past and the future, to the detriment of the here and now. It’s what has us reaching into the fridge when we aren’t hungry, losing our temper when we know it’s not really in our best interest, and pruning our inboxes when we’re ostensibly engaged in conversation with other human beings. Our inner chatter isn’t all bad of course. Sometimes it’s creative, generous or funny. But if we don’t play close attention which very few of us are taught to do –it can be a malevolent puppeteer.” No wonder we are tired, stressed and overwhelmed.
The number one reason that people seek me out is for food advice. I have been doing food in some way since I was about 5. Those were the years I was obstinately trying to cook pasta in my room and begging for an Easy Bake Oven. Since then I have moved up a little. I have become known around town as the digestive whisperer. I pretty much can solve almost every digestive dilemma. And almost every adult I know has one. People expect that much. But the whole piece on the brain and the power of your thinking isn’t one they necessarily bargain for.
But here’s where it gets really interesting. The gut and the brain are directly connected. There is a direct pathway between the hypothalamus, the pituitary and the digestive system. The vagus nerve also directly impacts the digestive system. When this isn’t working well people experience more anxiety, mood issues and hormonal disruption. While we all recognize this at some level, everything we’ve ever done in life, or everything we ever will do depends on the brain. That means everything you are doing now from enjoying your coffee, to listening to music, to feeling the wind on your face depends on your brain. And if the brain’s not functioning well, nothing else in the body will function well, period. It’s one of those really obvious things that’s so obvious maybe that we overlook it. And I can tell you in all the times I perched on the edge of an exam table with crinkly paper underneath me or as an employee of large hospital where we discussed patient outcomes, this was never discussed. But maybe it should be.
So not only is it necessary to rewire your thinking to create change, it’s also required if you want to lose weight or improve how you feel physically. Your brain is directly tied to your digestion and consequently all the vital components of your emotional and mental well being: neurons, peptides, neurotransmitters and hormones. And doesn’t it make you think about how food can make you happy but also protect you from things like the deterioration of your brain cells?
This is where the Reluctant Woo Woo Person in me meets the Nerdy Science Person in me and together we do a happy, awkward dance thingy.
What I explained to my smart, successful client is that the war that is being waged in his head is not sustainable. It’s as responsible for weight gain as the food on his plate. Chronic stress and chronic personal flogging work themselves out like this: you have decreased activity in the brain, and that decreases the activation of the vagal motor nuclei, which in turns suppresses the intestinal immune system and decreases intestinal blood flow. This means increased growth in pathogenic yeast and bacteria, that cause intestinal permeability or leaky gut. Leaky gut creates a state of chronic low level inflammation. Then the inflammatory cytokines produced in the gut travel through the blood and they cross the blood-brain barrier. One of the problems with inflammation is that it makes the blood-brain barrier leaky so you get leaky brain. And then those inflammatory cytokines once they get into the brain activate the microglial cells. The microglial cells are the immune cells of the brain and once they’re activated by these inflammatory cytokines this is basically inflammation of the brain. So your brain gets inflamed, you get a leaky brain and then you get inflamed brain.
And that’s no fun, definitely. Definitely. No fun.
So it all begins with rewiring the mind to be at more peace with itself. War with yourself cannot last. The voice that tells you that you are no good must be softened and toned down. It starts with being curious. It’s met with acceptance, because as long as there is a rejecting of self, there cannot be peace. And the antidote to the disharmony is love. My client raised his eyebrows at me and asked me if I was asking him to love what he found unlovable about himself? And I said yes. I know that’s hard because I struggle with it myself. The love we so easily direct at others must be poured into our own wounds so the story and the voice lose their power.
My client emailed me on day one and said he had a break through. He got up with a commitment to tame the negative and destructive monologue. He anchored himself in with a new morning routine. When an old memory came up, he recognized the voice of judgment, shame and blame. He looked at it with curiosity. He looked at himself with love and acceptance. He voiced the acceptance and love. And the voice went away.
What’s love got to do with it? Every freaking thing.
If this was helpful to you, please share it. If you are tired of the diets and being at war with food, let’s chat. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. In the meantime, stay connected. On Instagram I am @mmbfoodie. On Facebook, I am Sustainable Nutrition, Mary Brooks.