As a nutrition nerd, I’ve often caught myself thinking I can fix everything with food.
My late-night cortisol surge? Food.
My stubbornly high blood sugar? Food.
My rusted-out adrenal system? Food.
My scoliosis and painful hangnails? Food.
Okay, I’m kidding about those last two. Mostly.
Food IS the most powerful lever we have to pull when it comes to balancing our hormones (including supporting our adrenals), battling weight loss resistance, and preventing and reversing chronic disease.
It’s the base on which every other healthy intervention builds. Without it, getting more exercise, supplementation, and sleep will only make the smallest of dents.
And, true to form, once I began to follow an immune-modulating and epigenome-influencing food protocol, my health improved dramatically.
It’s because food is information. Every bite sends powerful, irreversible messages to every cell in our body – talking to our immune system, our hormones, and our genes.
And we eat three times (or more) a day, giving us the chance to talk to our body’s systems all day, every day. Along with sleep, no other intervention is as regular or universal.
Food is also easily quantifiable. We can know the vitamin and mineral content of Brazil nuts, for example, and how many we need eat to promote optimal selenium uptake in the body. If our body doesn’t produce enough lipase to process the fat in the nuts, we can take digestive enzymes to boost absorption, and, boom, on paper, we should have our selenium deficiency solved.
Knowing this, it’s easy to begin to focus on food exclusively.
But to default to a nutrition-only worldview is to shoot ourselves in the metaphorical foot.
The other ways we tend our health – getting enough high-quality sleep, taking stress management seriously, reducing exposure to toxins, and building strong and supportive social and family networks – matter hugely.
I was reminded of this a couple years back when I tested my hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c). HbA1c is a measure of blood sugar over the previous three months. Mine was high – higher than ever before (I test every 3 to 6 months). And I don’t eat any sugar. None. Not even fruit.
(Okay, I will eat one strawberry here and there in the summer because (1) strawberries contain gallic acid, which boosts the competency of the STK11 gene, which is upstream of mTOR, a protein that regulates cell growth and is key to controlling the multiplication of cells that can result in cancer…. sorry, there I go geeking out about food again… (2) strawberries are low glycemic/low sugar, and (3) strawberries grow in my garden and who can resist a fresh strawberry straight from the backyard?)
I also avoid grains and eat very few legumes.
What in the world could be causing my blood sugar to spike?
My functional medicine doctor’s best guess? Stress.
This was a huge wake-up call – and a reminder that you can do everything right on your plate and still come up short if you’re shortchanging your other self-care.
And it made sense in my case. I was having major life stressors at the time and my self-care was in the toilet. I would work all day and then stay up all night watching old episodes of 30 Rock. I was drinking too much tea and exercising not at all. (In case you’re wondering, I’ve turned that ship around now and my HbA1c is lower and stable. I still watch the occasional episode of 30 Rock.)
A recent lecture by leading positive psychology researcher, Barbara Fredrickson, got me thinking about the huge role quality of life plays in physical health. (The lecture was part of my Functional Medicine Coaching Academy program.)
She was talking about the importance of “prioritizing positivity.” Most of us wake up in the morning and our brains naturally prioritize achievement – What can I get done today? How much can I tackle before bed?
We ignore entirely the activities that fill us with joy.
Positive experience is a huge piece of self-care. What would our lives be like, asks Fredrickson, if we organized our days around the things that bring us meaning and pleasure, instead of around the things that we have to get done?
Those things still have to get done, of course, but what if we re-order their importance in our brains? What if we prioritize positivity?
Fredrickson defines positivity as anything that brings about joy, enthusiasm, excitement, serenity, gratitude, inspiration, love, interest, and pride.
All of these feelings and emotions elicit what she calls an “upward spiral of lifestyle change.” And lifestyle change is what’s required for managing any chronic condition.
Positivity is anti-viral. It’s immune-supportive. Alternately, chronic adversity is inflammatory and inflammation is the foundation upon which every chronic condition is built.
Speaking of the epigenome that I referenced earlier (epigenome = “the multitude of chemical compounds that can tell the genome what to do”), according to Fredrickson, research has shown that healthy gene expression is closely tied to eudaimonic wellbeing – the wellbeing associated with meaning in life, self-realization, contribution, and growth.
So this is the advice I want leave you – and me (we teach what we most need to learn, they say) with today. Prioritize positivity.
Fredrickson says you can’t force it – it’s a delicate art. It’s a proactive way of being wise and dedicated in planning your day to prioritize what brings you joy, enthusiasm, excitement, serenity, gratitude, inspiration, love, interest, and pride.
As she says, too many people are “shoulding and planning.” There’s too much achievement and not enough positive emotion-building.
The emotions associated with positivity help ameliorate stress; the decreased stress response supports a whole host of positive health outcomes. Joy is good for your cells, your genes, your immune system, your blood sugar, everything.
Yes, make sure to eat your Brazil nuts. But make time for some joy – whatever shape that takes for you – along the way. It’s not selfish or frivolous. It’s critical for good health.
Note from Jill: A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Henry Emmons, a psychiatrist who integrates mind-body and natural therapies, mindfulness, Buddhist teachings, compassion, and insight into his clinical work. He’s an expert in building personal resilience and personal and professional renewal. I highly recommend his books, The Chemistry of Joy and The Chemistry of Calm. You don’t have to have suffered from depression and anxiety to benefit greatly from these readings.