The Essential Role of Food in Healing Traumatic and Chronic Stress
A week ago, I found myself in a discussion with a business consultant. We were speaking about my business model and as we got into the details of what I do, we talked about sharing recipes and teaching my clients how to cook, familiarizing them with whole food ingredients. From his point of view, food, cooking and cooking classes were far from the work of a healthcare provider and even further from someone involved in the work and support of healing from chronic and traumatic stress. I soon realized that there is no common ground and retreated from the argument, but within me, this conversation lit up something else: an understanding. Today, I am grateful, for this man highlighted one of the gaps in society creating a disconnect that stands in the way of healing for many.
He was completely right to say that the current health care system separates health care and food. Medical doctors, for most people the primary contact when it comes to health care, are unfortunately not trained extensively regarding integrative nutrition. While many societies begin to shed a brighter light on mental health in general, a truly holistic approach, which includes nutrition in the healing equation and dares to speak about trauma, its effects and the interconnectedness of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing, is not yet established. These conversations do not need to be abstract. The experience of stress is actually not abstract at all and if we were truly honest with ourselves and each other, elements of trauma and stress are topics we can all relate to. We may simply lack the skill of observation, the consciousness, or the language to engage in this conversation.
Here’s the thing: When under stress, one’s eating habits change. Some binge on foods, often high in refined sugar and flour - for a readily available energy rush - others forget to eat or simply cannot bring themselves to have anything at all. Some people suffer from severe impairment of their digestive function and experience stomach acid reflux, abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, cramps, or nausea. If the source of your stress is a traumatic experience, or, if you are permanently under stress, the symptoms can become long-term visitors. Eating disorders can have their roots in traumatic experiences and are often linked to deep wounds of the soul. This is not an extensive overview of issues linking stress, trauma, and nourishment, but if you step back, they make the bigger picture visible.
First of all, the root of this behavior is partly physical: finding oneself in the fight-or-flight mode that our nervous system switches to under stress means that digestive functioning is decreased, just as mental functioning is. This directly correlates with the digestive issues I mentioned above that may occur. As the body pumps sugar into the blood stream to supply the muscles with energy to “run away from the threat”, cravings for sugar intensify for some.
Apart from that, using food to fulfill a need, developing addictive or compulsive eating habits, bingeing on foods, or avoiding food altogether, are all behavioral patterns that are not coincidental, but rather coping mechanisms exhibiting a strong connection between food, the (in-)ability and desire to take care of oneself and underlying emotional wounds.
“In human development the ingestion of food has a significance beyond its obvious dietary role. Following birth the mother’s nipple replaces the umbilical cord as the source of nutrients for the infantt, and it is also a point of continued physical contact between mother and child. Proximity to a body also meets emotional attachment needs that are as basic to the child as the need for physical sustenance. When infants are anxious or upset, they are offered a human or a plastic nipple - in other words, a relationship with either a natural nurturing object or something that closely resembles it. That’s how emotional nourishment and oral feeding or soothing become closely associated in the mind. On the other hand, emotional deprivation will trigger a desire for oral stimulation or eating just as surely as hunger.”, says Gabor Maté, Medical Doctor renowned for his work in the field of addiction and trauma (Mate, 2008, p.232).
Reflecting on this for a moment, you realize that this form of providing care for someone else is everywhere: when there’s a reason to celebrate, when we mourn, when someone close to you is upset, when someone is sad, a grandmother cooking up a storm,… the list goes on - We commonly offer food to show our love, to soothe and comfort those around us, just like a mother feeding her infant. When it comes to ourselves though, we may lack the self-love and self-regulation required for taking care of ourselves. We may eat too little, too much, or food that is harming us more than it heals in consequence.
Empowerment of the individual that facilitates healing from traumatic and chronic stress requires the integration of evidence-based information on whole foods and herbs traditionally used in herbal medicine. Moreover, understanding the connection and effects of food on the body, particularly the nervous system, and knowing beneficial foods for healing are crucial. Equally, the combination of recipes and learning about preparation techniques simplifies change, because it applies the theoretical knowledge and makes an idea a new reality.
As a nutritionist, my goal is to improve the quality and nutrient density of the foods someone suffering from traumatic and chronic stress eats and to take advantage of the foods and herbs that gently improve mental and physical health. But the goal is just as much to help them create and establish a ritual of self-care and nourishment for their soul. Only when I help someone understand the roots of their behavior with compassion - encouraging curious self-compassion - and assist with guidance in the form of providing simple, healthy recipes that make it easier to take care of oneself on a daily basis in a self-regulated way, I can truly contribute to someone’s healing.
Maté, Gabor (2008). In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Close Encounters with Addiction. (Toronto, Canada: Vintage Canada).