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You Are How You Eat

by Dr. Jon Luchs, ND/LAc

Some diseases are more prevalent among a particular people or in a particular part of the world. Though malaria can be found on several continents, over 90% of malarial cases are found in Africa. While malaria is particularly deadly in sub-Saharan Africa, diet is the bane of many Americans. In “Super Size Me,” independent filmmaker Morgan Spurlock subsists exclusively on McDonald’s processed and deep-fried fare. After looking at Spurlock’s dangerous shift in liver and lipid blood values only weeks into his gluttony experiment, his doctor warns him of imminent risks like liver failure and heart attack. “Super Size Me” and similar stories are entertaining no-brainers with a popular punch, because it is true that for convenience and relatively cheap cost-per-calorie, too many people eat too much fast food and other processed, packaged foods.  

And so with good reason, natural medicine practitioners promote diets of minimally processed, plant-based [usually not vegetarian], whole foods. Journalist Michael Pollan summarizes his dietary research in “Food Rules” which he introduces with the following 7-word adage: “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” The majority of natural medicine practitioners and patients avoid the more obvious [McDonald’s] pitfalls of digestive dysfunction, especially when it comes to food selection. With varying priority, natural medicine practitioners recommend leafy green and colorful vegetables and fruits, protein-rich legumes, lean meats, root vegetables, ample water, healthy fats, and minimal refined carbohydrates. That’s good, because what we eat does matter. But the inventory of what we eat isn’t the whole picture when it comes to optimizing nutrition and health.  

Equally important is how we eat. For example, think of a plate of food as a painted canvas. A beautiful painting becomes a better painting when it is presented well—framed and showcased and not stored in an attic. Similarly, the nutritional value of a meal is affected by how we eat it—our mood, our company, our nervous system.

Apart from when we swallow food to the moment that we have a bowel movement, we don’t voluntarily direct digestion. The coordination of countless events between A and B is thankfully managed by our genius auto-pilot, coined the “autonomic nervous system” or “ANS.” Our auto-pilot can be generalized to two modes. First, the “fright/flight/fight” mode [sympathetic nervous system] is about action: increased heart and respiratory rates with increased flow of oxygenated blood to our limbs in order to help us escape a bear, or more likely to get out of bed in the morning.  

The complimentary mode to “fright/flight/fight” is “rest & digest” [parasympathetic nervous system]. Though a busy time inside our bodies, “rest & digest” is about voluntary inaction, not running, not fighting, not driving, not watching suspenseful shows like “Walking Dead” [a current favorite]. Instead “rest & digest” is a regenerative mode, a time when kidney, liver and digestive circulation are prioritized, a time when digestive enzymes flow and digestive muscles flex, and we digest-absorb nutrients to build new tissue and clear toxins. In a daily metamorphosis on par with the caterpillar-butterfly transformation, our digestive muscles and chemical enzymes reduce rock-sized food beyond dust, which we then use to build ourselves anew!

Conversely, during survival mode [“fright/flight/fight”], chemical and nervous system signals slow the churning muscles of the stomach and intestines and shut off the flow of digestive enzymes. When our body perceives life-threatening danger, what’s the use of investing in future energy [i.e. lunch], if you think you are on the menu? Unfortunately, the “fright/flight/fight” mode is much more prevalent in our modern American lives. Although we are rarely outrunning bears, at a creature level we perceive daily crises throughout our personal and professional lives, and so find ourselves frequently overwhelmed and stressed out.  

This means that our get-stuff-done “fright/flight/fight” mode is overused, which along with taxing our adrenal and thyroid glands, also binds us in a chronic state of digestive dysfunction without the physiologic focus to thoroughly break down food.

So, what is a solution to this problem of excessive stress and its negative impact on our dietary and other health? Natural medicine celebrates the Mediterranean diet as a list of delicious and nutritious ingredients, the what-you-eat. Also fundamental to the traditional Mediterranean diet is a leisurely midday break during the work week to eat lunch slowly and take a midday nap, the how-you-eat. Consequently Mediterranean health and longevity are determined both by what people eat and how they eat it.

Michael Pollan’s what-you-eat 7-word wisdom: “Eat food. Mostly plants.Not too much.”

A complimentary how-you-eat 7-word sensibility: “Eat in peace. Slowly. Take a nap.”  

Now, you may not be able to incorporate a siesta into your midday work schedule. But you may develop a routine of consistent meal and sleep times. And you can cultivate a meal setting that is more peaceful, and begin to chew your food upwards of 25 times per bite. These meal and sleep practices alone will go a long way towards welcoming more of the “rest and digest” mode back into your life, which will in turn re-balance your digestive and overall physiology. Easier said than done? There are many natural medicine protocols which support this re-balancing of the nervous system. My interventionist approach is based on restoring the digestive physiology that is interrupted by prolonged stress, even when folks feel they cannot make adequate changes to their meal setting and routine. Though the above-mentioned long term routine practice of “rest and digest” is ideal, we may need a few intermediate steps to get there. This is where the expertise of licensed natural medicine practitioners can improve your health with a gradual, sustainable trajectory tailored to You.