Mood swings, pants that no longer button, pain, embarrassing digestive woes, spaciness — while these symptoms may seem like minor disturbances, they can also be your body’s way of telling you that something is up, perhaps even indicating more serious trouble to come. These issues may be varied, but the root cause is often the same: inflammation, which, if ignored, can lead to obesity, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, depression, cancer, and heart disease. And while inflammation can be caused by many of life’s strains — toxins, environmental pollution, hormone imbalances, viruses, and certain medications such as antibiotics and NSAIDs — two of the biggest offenders are mood and food.
“The way you live your life, the relationships you maintain, and the things you eat and drink all contribute to the body’s natural ability to heal,” says Melinda Ring, M.D., executive medical director at Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Northwestern University. The good news: You can reverse inflammation — and the damage it can cause — with smart lifestyle choices.
Keep reading to better understand the connections between what you eat, how you think, and your well-being — and learn the research-driven strategies that turn back the clock on chronic symptoms and prevent disease, dramatically improving your health.
“Calming the mind is as important to our overall health as healthy food is to managing inflammation,” says Sonia Oyola, M.D., director of family medicine clerkship at the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago and founder of Be Alright, a nonprofit organization that supports survivors of domestic violence and Chicago-area domestic violence shelters.
Stress reduction is a huge part of that, but “research has uncovered that it’s not simply an event that causes stress,” says Elson Haas, M.D., founder and director of the Preventive Medical Center of Marin, a 32-year-old integrative medicine facility in San Rafael, California. “It’s the way you interpret the event that affects your stress response, your sense of control, resilience, attitude, behaviors, and, ultimately, your health.”
While we’ve evolved to recover from the short bouts of agitation and fear needed to dodge a saber-toothed tiger or face a looming deadline, the body is not so good at dealing with unresolved conflict. As stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline are released over an extended time, inflammation ensues. The aphorism “never go to bed angry” directly applies to good health: A recent study at Ohio State University’s Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research found that a stressful day today obstructs the bodily benefits of a healthful meal tomorrow. Here, smart strategies that promise to keep life’s daily pressures from sabotaging our most healthful pursuits.
Recent major-university research in neuroscience and positive psychology has examined how emotions impact our physiology. As one might expect, toxic thoughts and emotions such as chronic anger, loneliness, stress, shame, and sadness cause inflammation, hormone imbalances, impaired immunity, blood pressure elevation, high cholesterol, and illnesses ranging from heart disease and cancer to depression. Conversely, states of calmness, mindfulness, and happiness have profound positive benefits, from improved sleep and energy to better cancer survival rates, longer telomeres (the end pieces of DNA that shorten as we age), and even a reversal of the damage wrought by negative thoughts and emotions. Contentment literally works at the cellular level, balancing the immune system and safeguarding us against stress.
In one study at the University of Pittsburgh, 350 adults rated their experience with nine positive emotions, including feeling energetic, pleased, and calm, before being exposed to the common cold. Those with the highest positive scores were least likely to become sick after infection. In another study, 81 graduate students undergoing the same type of assessment received a hepatitis B vaccine. Again, those with the most positive experiences were two times likelier to have a high antibody response to the vaccine, a sign of a hardy immune system. Other studies found that positivity lowered the incidence of long-term health conditions and extended life by seven to 10 years.
For another mind-body example, consider the placebo effect. Sometimes when study subjects believe they are receiving medicine, but are actually administered dummy pills, they recover from an illness anyway. The simple belief in a positive outcome produced an immune recharge. Think about it: When was the last time you got sick just before a vacation?
Our current culture keeps us extremely busy and just a few minutes a day of calming practices can improve mood and immunity. “From a peaceful center, we can respond instead of react,” says Jack Kornfield, Ph.D., meditation teacher, author, Buddhist elder, and founder of the Spirit Rock Center in Woodacre, California. “Unconscious reactions and fear create problems. Considered and compassionate responses bring peace. With a peaceful and kind heart, whatever happens can be met with wisdom.”
Meditation allows us to calm the body and eavesdrop on our ever-present mind chatter, improving our ability to stay focused on the present and freeing us from attachments to past and future worries, to-do lists, and other anxiety-provoking ideas. Yoga, a moving form of meditation, offers similar calming benefits plus improved muscle tone, balance, and lymphatic circulation to aid the immune system.
Such practices also produce physiological changes in the brain. A recent study at Harvard University found that just 27 minutes per day of mindfulness meditation significantly increased the gray matter of the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with compassion and introspection, and decreased gray matter in the amygdala, the brain’s anxiety and stress center.
According to the National Institutes of Health, this increase in gray matter can also reduce chronic pain and depression. As if that wasn’t enough, both meditation and yoga flood the brain and body with feel-good neurotransmitters and hormones, such as serotonin, melatonin, DHEA, and endorphins, and the practices lower the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, thereby improving mood and energy, decreasing inflammation, and enabling the immune system and organs to do their best. If you aren’t a yogi or a meditator, physical exercise, laughter, dance, and singing are effective alternatives.
Embrace Your Emotions
As I write in my book “Gutsy,” so much of what we think and feel comes from habit — a set of behaviors, emotional reactions, beliefs, and perceptions that are on autopilot. It takes continual prioritization in even a small part of your daily activities to turn new mood-boosting practices into healthy habits. The rewards are well worth the effort. “It’s like building an anti-stress muscle — the more you practice, the more fit and prepared you become in managing stressful moments,” says Oyola. She also recommends that we slow down, rest, and sleep seven to nine hours for similar benefits.
With all this talk about happiness, though, it is important to note that well-being is not about being cheerful all the time. Studies show maintaining a range of emotions helps us actually experience happiness and keeps us from becoming manic. The aim is not to erase negative feelings, but rather to add more peace, awareness, and joy to life for a shift in perspective and health.
Dairy and meat served with a dose of antibiotics and hormones? Veggies soaked in pesticides? Packaged foods rich in chemicals and hydrogenated fats? No thanks. Unfortunately, for the sake of price, taste, texture, and shelf stability, the food industry has adulterated much of our food with inflammation-causing fats, sugar, chemicals, herbicides, and pesticides.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the average American now eats 50 pounds of chemicals and 150 pounds of sugar annually. Though Americans are overfed, we are actually undernourished. How do you explain away those excess pounds, frequent headaches, afternoon energy crashes, acne, sluggish thyroid, and bouts of anxiety, depression, and other problems? Do you chalk them up to aging? What is actually going on inside the body to cause these disturbances?
So often when troublesome symptoms arise, a diagnosis is made and medication prescribed without any investigation into the root cause. Yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently discovered that 80 percent of cancers can be traced to toxins, in both our environment and our food. Fortunately, the power to reverse symptoms and prevent disease is in your hands and on your plate.
The food we eat literally becomes our blood, our cells, and our tissues, and what you choose to consume is critical to feeling well both physiologically and emotionally. Like smoking, eating inflammatory foods (e.g., nonorganic foods, GMO foods, processed foods, sugar, and for some people, gluten and dairy products) can brew trouble, including overproduction of free radicals, hormone imbalances, and changes in gene expression, all of which can lead to inflammation. Food can also impact the microbiome — the 100 trillion microbes living in the gut that serve as the epicenter of immunity and emotional wellness — allowing harmful bacteria to flourish.
Fortunately, nature provides us with many foods filled with natural agents that calm the genes coding for inflammation, such as leafy greens, berries, herbs, spices, garlic, and green tea, to name a few. “We know, and research confirms, that good food is good medicine,” says Ring. “Break out of your food funk by shopping at your local farmers market or trying a new vegetable in the produce section. Focus on how your food makes you feel.”
“Food solutions can dramatically reduce your risk of disease as well as help heal existing conditions and discomforts,” says Rebecca Katz, nutritionist and cookbook author. “So many common foods — everything from broccoli to blueberries — have multiple disease-fighting properties [that range] from controlling inflammation to preventing cancer,” adds Katz, whose recipes are abundant in health-supportive vegetables, herbs, and spices with benefits confirmed by thousands of published studies.
Rich in vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and fiber, plant foods also help fill you up, stabilize blood sugar, and curb unhealthy cravings. Aim for 2.5 to 5 cups or more of colorful veggies and some fruit daily. Eating organic is preferable, as it eliminates harmful pesticides and herbicides while maximizing nutrients from healthier soils. See how your food stacks up by visiting ewg.org/foodscores.
Choose Good Fats
Recent studies reveal that healthful fats actually douse inflammation and are essential for healthy brain and nerve function, cholesterol and hormone production, and blood sugar stability. And when we consume good fats and limit simple carbs, the body naturally burns fat rather than craving sugar for energy. Beneficial fats are in food sources such as avocados, olive oil, coconut oil, nuts and seeds, and fish high in omega-3 fatty acid, including wild salmon, sardines, and anchovies. Limit your intake of saturated animal fat. And by all means, avoid artery-clogging hydrogenated “trans” fats used in processed foods and yellow vegetable oils (e.g., corn and soy) and spreads.
By now most of us know we should avoid the sweet stuff. Devoid of nutrients and a big cause of inflammation, sugar raises insulin levels and can lead to obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s. Every time you raise your blood glucose, you tell your body to store fat. And blood sugar highs and lows can increase anxiety and hormone imbalances that cause unhealthy food cravings, fatigue, and acne. Accordingly, the American Heart Association now recommends limiting added sugar to 6 teaspoons (24 grams) daily for women and 9 teaspoons (36 grams) for men.
But we’re not just talking about table sugar. Simple carbs that are quickly digested into sugar also put us at risk, including soda, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice, alcohol, and refined flours in bread, bagels, pizza, pasta, pretzels, and baked desserts. Instead, choose complex carbs such as whole grains, vegetables, and legumes high in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and protective phytonutrients. To satisfy a sweet tooth, try fruit, sweet potatoes, caramelized onions, and a square of dark chocolate (70 percent or higher).
Critical to every cell in the body, protein helps build muscles, supports brain function and digestion, and balances hormones and mood; it also helps stabilize blood sugar and boosts metabolism and immunity. Eating protein at every meal can help increase satiety and curb sugar cravings. As for how many grams of protein per day you should aim to be eating, figure .36 per pound of your body weight. Be sure to choose high-quality protein sources: grass-fed meats, organic eggs or poultry, organic dairy, and wild-caught fish contain more trace minerals, vitamins, and healthy fatty acids and fewer pollutants, heavy metals, hormones, and antibiotics than their conventionally farmed counterparts. Plant foods such as beans, rice, quinoa, and kale also provide some protein.
Food intolerances, detrimental inflammatory reactions to certain foods, now plague 75 percent of us. Like chemicals, food containing dairy, gluten, soy, corn, and yeast as well as eggs and nightshade vegetables can cause the microbiome to become imbalanced and the digestive lining to become inflamed and leaky. Wayward food particles can then migrate to the bloodstream, where immune cells mount attacks on the food and, inadvertently, on certain tissues and organs. The result: joint pain, muscle aches, constipation, diarrhea, rashes, autoimmune diseases, asthma, and hyperactivity. Even cancer risk may increase as determined by Alessio Fasano, chief of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition at MassGeneral Hospital for Children. Since we are each bio-individuals, determining the root cause of your particular food-symptom connection is essential, which you can do by conducting an elimination diet. In my book “Gutsy,” I discuss my own challenges with lupus and arthritis and complete recovery after discovering a gluten intolerance, as well as similar stories shared by others. A food elimination plan (included in the book) or specialized testing can help you pinpoint any offending foods. “In general, a hypoallergenic diet (one free of your known triggers) that doesn’t cause inflammation gives your immune system the best support,” states Haas.
Learn Your Metabolic Type
Many struggles with weight loss can also be attributed to inflammation with its link to insulin and leptin, hormones that control blood sugar, appetite, and metabolism. “Metabolic type is the characteristic way in which a person responds to and metabolizes food,” says James Haig, nutrition consultant, health educator, and owner of Metabolic Balance in San Rafael, California. Certain foods like whole grains, fruit, and even protein may help control inflammation in some but actually exacerbate inflammation in others, which may explain why there is so much conflicting information about diet and weight loss.
Haig determines metabolic type by simple, in-office testing revolving around a modified glucose challenge. “Once [a person’s type is] known, I can recommend appropriate foods to minimize an inflammatory response and maximize an anti-inflammatory defense,” he says. “When this occurs, energy and weight tend to stabilize; cravings are minimized; there’s more resilience in the face of stress; and health challenges are handled more effectively.” Ultimately, along with the adage “you are what you eat,” it’s important to remember that everybody is different. The bottom line? Understanding the way you respond to the foods you consume is key to improving your well-being.
Over the past decade, groundbreaking research in the field of epigenetics — the study of the on/off switches in our DNA — has revealed that our diet, emotions, and lifestyle choices play a significant role in the expression of our genes, influencing almost every aspect of our health. Toxins can switch on “bad genes” that code for inflammation and diseases, causing those genes to become expressed. Conversely, healthful compounds such as plant phytonutrients can turn those genes off.
As described by Deepak Chopra, M.D., and Rudy Tanzi, Ph.D., in their latest book, “Super Genes: Unlock the Astonishing Power of Your DNA for Optimum Health and Well-Being,” up to 95 percent of threatening gene mutations are influenced by our lifestyle choices. Healthy habits can literally change the course of our health.
For example, the emotional stresses of road rage, a frustrating job, or loneliness can negatively impact our gene expression much like that of processed foods high in chemicals, pesticides, and sugar. On the other hand, healthy relationships, exercise, gratitude, and a calm, positive outlook can mimic the protective genetic influence of green leafy vegetables. We are not stuck in a particular genetic destiny as was once thought to be the case. And because genetic expression is hereditary, our choices affect generations to come.
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Nan Foster is an integrative health coach living in Marin county, California, and author of “Gutsy: The Food-Mood Method to Revitalize Your Health Beyond Conventional Medicine.” For more information, visit nanfosterhealth.com. The Ceres Community Project of Marin and Sonoma Counties in California is Nan’s favorite nonprofit organization. Ceres creates health for people, communities, and the planet through love, healing food, and empowering the next generation.