It’s not just food – it’s also how we think about food

Head with colored cogs inside
creative brain
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. I’ve made an observation that when people learn a lot about health and nutrition, even though they enjoy better overall health when they act on their knowledge, they tend to get more colds.

Of course this doesn’t apply to everyone but you might spot yourself if it does apply.

And I have to admit, I went through that phase myself.

Why is this?

Personally, in the past I only had positive associations about food. When I ate some chocolate, my main thought was that I was getting energy from it. Cheese, for me, meant protein. Milk was calcium.

But back in 2003, my life changed in many ways as I learned a lot about good nutrition. As I put my knowledge into action, I lost 18 pounds in weight in around 7 weeks, my skin tone even improved and I felt fantastic compared to how I’d always felt.

But I also started getting more colds and sore throats. To be honest, I’m one of those people who, up until that point, rarely got sick. In fact, the headmaster at my school announced my name on the tannoy system when I was 17 as one of only 2 people who’d gone 6 years of high school without missing a single day through illness. Actually, that wasn’t so cool for a 17 year old. 🙂

Now, I don’t personally think the colds had anything whatsoever to do with my new diet. My new diet was excellent. So what was the cause? I think the root was the fact that now I was acutely aware of all the foods that were ‘bad’ for me.

Eating chocolate no longer meant energy for me. Now it meant sugar (bad) and saturated fat (bad). So when I ate chocolate (which I find hard to resist), I was really telling myself that I was taking stuff that was bad for me into my body, whereas in the past I was affirming it’s good qualities. The shift was in my mind and it was creating stress.

Similarly, I found myself obsessively reading labels for sugar and fat contents and feeling guilty when I ate something that had high contents of sugar, salt and fat. Funnily enough, I was actually imagining the internal damage they were doing to my body – like a negative visualization. That’s OK if we avoid the foods but it’s not so handy if we eat them anyway.

I’ve been wondering if this could have created a negative placebo effect (a nocebo effect) that resulted in me getting more colds. I think it did. The solution was to change what I told myself about foods.

Of course, it is important to eat a healthy diet. Diet is crucial for health. A healthy diet can reduce the likelihood of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer, as well as a number of other illnesses, and it can increase mobility as well as mental clarity.

But we also need to think wisely about food. It would make more sense to think of the positives we get from all foods and then just choose the ones that we know to be better for us in the long-term.

When we have a slip-up day from our diets (which I think most of us do), then we might simply remind ourselves that there is actually energy and nutrients to be obtained from whatever we are eating – unless of course you’re tucking into a plastic bag or something like that, in which case I’d be concerned anyway!

And, of course, I don’t think it would be wise to test the power of food beliefs by eating typically high sugary, salty, and fatty foods and just telling ourselves that we’re getting good nutrition from them.

I’m talking about a sensible balance, where we eat wisely and healthily, but merely observe our minds a little, catching ourselves when we think negative about what we are eating.

Eating healthy is a choice. But choosing to eat healthy foods is different from cutting out unhealthy foods. On the surface it’s the same, but the difference is in the mind. Cutting out unhealthy foods labels unhealthy stuff as bad, while choosing to eat healthy focuses, instead, on what is healthy. The difference is in the mind.

As we go through life, learning new things, we needn’t always dismiss what we knew or believed in the past, swapping it for new knowledge. Oftentimes, the wisest thing to do is to build on what we have learned up until then. That way, life doesn’t have to be black and white, new instead of old, but can take on many textures and shades along the way. We can take in the new, but also retain what was good about the old.

That’s how I think of things anyway.

So that’s just some of my thinking about food. As I said, it might not apply to you but I’d hazard a guess that it applies to more people than we’d imagine.

How Being an Optimist Might Lower Your Risk of a Stroke

eggs with positive words written on themA recent 2-year study at the University of Michigan followed 6,044 people who were over the age of 50. At the beginning of the study they had to rate their optimism level on a 16-point scale.

They found that for each extra 1 point of optimism on the scale, the risk of a stroke dropped by 9%. Three points and that’s nearly a 30% lower risk. Incredible!

Optimism seems to be fairly protective against stroke.

The link between optimism, positive emotions, and health is something that I’ve been writing and speaking on quite a bit in the past couple of years so I welcome research of this type that adds how we think, feel, and act, to the standard idea of how to be healthy.

We tend to think that we just need to eat well and take some exercise and everything will be OK. But we forget the importance of how we think and how we feel.

The question is, how does the mind have such an effect on health, or in this case, the risk of stroke?

The study leader, Eric Kim, believed that the work “suggests that people who expect the best in life actively take steps to promote health.” I totally agree with this.

I would also add that optimists look for solutions and get through difficult situations more easily than pessimists do. When you believe that you ‘can’ you tend to do what you can. But when you believe that you ‘can’t’, you often give up or get stressed.

Studies show that people who are more optimistic tend to have better coping strategies for when stressful situations come along. They get through them easier so they typically have less stress in their lives.

People who are more pessimistic, on the other hand, tend to have poorer coping strategies so pessimism, on the whole, is associated with more stress.

Of course, I must point out that this doesn’t apply to everyone. There are always exceptions. We all know optimists who don’t cope so well and pessimists who do. So it’s not so black and white. But averaged over a large number of people, we typically find that optimism is most definitely associated with better coping and thus lower stress.

How does this relate to the risk of a stroke? Lots of evidence shows a correlation between stress and stroke, particularly high levels of prolonged stress.

There are different types of stroke but a 2009 study found that a stroke caused by hardening of blood vessels, or blot clots in the brain, had the strongest links with stress.

Hardening of blood vessels can develop because of stress, as well as poor diet, and also, interestingly, hostility towards others. When under stress, chunks of hard calcium built up on arterial walls can cleave off and lead to a blockage. This can cause a stroke.

So I would say that optimism lowers our risk of stroke not only because we make better choices in life, but because of this additional reason.

So how do we become more optimistic? Here are 3 simple suggestions:

 

1) Tell yourself that you can more often than you tell yourself that you can’t.

This attitude helps you to find solutions and cope better when stressful situations come along.

2) Use positive affirmations

Try repeating, ‘Stuff happens, but it’s my choice how I respond to it’, or the Èmile Coué classic, ‘Every day in every way, I’m getting better and better’, or even ‘I always find the silver lining’.

3) Shed the idea that people are selfish/bad/mean and that the world is a bad place.

This is just as assumption. We see what we want to see in life, but it’s not necessarily the truth. Look for examples of kindness and compassion around you and in the world. Keep a diary of your findings.

 

References:

Click here for the study linking optimism with risk of stroke. You can download the PDF from the linked page.

Click here for a meta analysis of of studies on optimism and coping strategies.

Click here for a ‘Science Daily’ article linking severe stress and stroke.

Top 5 Mind-Body Tips for Healthy Living

girl relaxing in the grass1) Meditate to calm your mind and stay young

Meditation helps calm the mind and reduce stress. Regular practice helps us meet many of the routinely challenging situations in our lives with less effort, and we achieve better results.

Few people realize that meditation also slows the aging process. One study associated meditation with higher levels of the ‘anti-aging hormone’, DHEA, implying that meditation slowed aging. A Harvard study showed that it even impacts us at the genetic level, affecting around 2,000 genes, some of which counteracted damage to the body from free radicals, thus potentially slowing the rate of aging.

A simple way to meditate is to sit down and listen to the sound of your breathing for about 10 minutes a day.

 

2) Believe that your mind can help you to heal

Studies of the placebo effect – where people get better in medical trials while taking dummy drugs – reveal that belief can make us well from many different ailments. When you believe in a medicine, or in the physician prescribing it, it is likely to work better for you. We have a powerful capacity to affect our own health with our minds.

One interesting placebo study saw volunteers in a pain study have placebo cream applied to one of their hands or feet, although they thought it was a local anaesthetic. Then they had extract of chili (capsicum) injected into their hands and feet. Incredibly, the pain selectively reduced where the cream was applied but not on the other hands and feet.

A simple way to build belief like this is to tell yourself regularly that the mind can help heal the body. Read up on scientific evidence of mind over matter (there’s lots around) and this will help you to believe in yourself.

The most common methods people use to visualize healing are where they imagine inside the body at the site(s) of illness and imagine changing it from illness to wellness. They imagine cleaning, clearing, scooping, melting, or even sending love and affection, or any other method they can think of. And they do it regularly.

Of course, using visualization is not a substitute for medical advice. It is something that you would use in addition to medical advice. That’s the intelligent approach.

 

3) Show compassion and kindness to people

Compassion physically impacts the brain, building up empathy centers and areas that help us to feel more positive and emotionally balanced. It is also linked with the vagus nerve. Some studies show that compassion is associated with the fitness of the vagus nerve in how it reduces inflammation in the body.

This is a good thing because too much inflammation plays a major role in heart disease, some cancers, and possibly the majority of diseases we know of.

Kindness is also good for your health. The bonding hormone, oxytocin, is released through warm emotional contact, which is something that kindness cultivates. Great research on oxytocin shows that it is cardioprotective – it helps protect your arteries from agents of disease. So kindness is cardioprotective. I love that because everyone is familiar with the idea that kindness (and love) is good for the heart (and soul). Science is saying the same thing.

Kindness can also make a real difference in someone’s life. We shouldn’t do kindness because we are trying to gain. We are kind because it’s the right thing to do. But the gains are real; they are side effects, written into our genetic code through the millions of years of caretaking behaviour of our ancestors.

 

4) Be Positive

OK. We’ve all heard this before, but it is important from a health perspective. A good dose of positivity can help us navigate some of the difficult situations in our lives with less stress. And stress, as we know, plays a role in illness and disease. Less stress can equal longer life.

Some studies on positivity show that it is associated with better health. One 30-year study found that optimists had around a 50% lower risk of early death than pessimists and a few others show that a positive attitude is associated with a longer lifespan.

Of course, there are always exceptions. We all know positive people who die young and very pessimistic people who outlive their entire families. That’s a statistical thing and will always be true. But take a sample of several thousand people and you will see that positivity is associated with longevity.

 

5) Cultivate a heart of gratitude

Counting our blessings is good for our mental and emotional health. One 3-week study compared those counting blessings with those counting their hassles. It was called a ‘Blessings vs Burdens’ study. The blessings group kept a daily diary of some things that they were grateful about while the burdens group kept a diary of their daily hassles. After the 3 weeks, those in the blessings group were 23% happier than those in the burdens group.

A few simple methods that you might use are, a) Write a daily list of 5-10 things that you are grateful for that have happened in the last day (it’s good to do this just before going to bed), or b) Choose a different person each day and spend a few moments thinking of all the reasons why you are grateful for their presence in your life.

Gratitude is a tasty ingredient in food for the soul

 

Think Yourself Positive

The brain’s circuits are not fixed.

Our experiences constantly change the wiring in our brains, a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. The more we do something, the more the brain physically changes as it wires it in.

A study of London taxi drivers showed neuroplasticity. It found that the hippocampus of the brain, which is involved in learning new routes as well as with spatial awareness, grew larger the more time they spent driving their taxis.

In another study, conducted by scientists at the University of Regensburg, volunteers learned to juggle three balls over a 3-month period. When MRI scans were taken of their brains, the area that processed visual movement had grown larger.

But it’s not just our physical experiences that cause neuroplasticity. Our thoughts do the same thing. In the first instance, thinking changes brain chemistry, but if we think the same thought repetitively we actually get neuroplasticity in the area of the brain that processes what we are thinking about.

So with meditation, for instance, we get changes in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is the area that controls concentration. When we imagine moving our body, we get changes in the motor cortex of the brain, which is the area that controls muscular movements.

What does this mean for us in daily life?

It means that our thoughts and attitudes become wired into our brains. But it also means that we can change our habits. They are not fixed.

For some people, a negative emotional response is typical when faced with life’s challenges. But it can be changed.

Even when this is a habit, neuroplasticity means that it can be overturned. As we make a conscious effort to adopt a different attitude, the brain circuits that processed our old way of thinking begin to fade, like the way a muscle atrophies if you stop using it. In a sense, the brain doesn’t want to waste energy maintaining the circuits if they are not needed as much.

In the juggling study mentioned above, after the first scans, the jugglers stopped practicing for 3 months and new scans then revealed that the area that had grown earlier had now shrunk. It’s a case of ‘use it or lose it’.

As we work on our new attitude, and the old circuits dissolve, new circuits are created in the brain that ‘wire in’ our new way of thinking so that the healthier positive attitude becomes the habit.

As we change our minds, we really do change ourselves as the neurological level. In the past, before research into neuroplasticity, many people might have though that their way of thinking was their nature. But a leopard can change it’s spots, so to speak.

You can think yourself positive, should you want to of course!

If you do, here’s a simple tool that can help. It’s called a Gratitude Intervention.

This is where, each day, you list about 5 or 10 things that you are grateful for. It gradually shifts focus away from stuff that annoys us or gets us down onto things that are pleasing. We start to see people differently, noticing and appreciating sides of them we hadn’t paid much attention to before. We also see some of the situations we find ourselves in, in a new light.

In a true sense, it changes the way we look at things and, of course, the things we look at then change.

A calm mind speeds up wound healing…..Marital Stress slows it down

Scientists at Ohio State University, Ronald Glaser and Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, created small blisters on the skin of volunteers who were married to each other.

First they asked the married couples to discuss a neutral topic, then they monitored the levels of a protein that is produced during wound healing over the next 3 weeks.

Then they asked the couples to discuss something that they disagreed upon; that would create stress in them both. Again, the scientists monitored the levels of the wound-healing protein. 
Astonishingly, the levels were lower when the couples had disagreed – when they had been stressed.

The effects of calm and stress work at the genetic level. For the wound-healing proteins to be made in the body, a gene must be switched on. Most attitudes of mind produce genetic effects. Neuroplasticity in the brain, where connections are forged between brain cells, requires the activation and deactivation of many genes, and occurs on account of what we focus our minds upon, just as it does when we repetitively move particular muscles. Furthermore, studies in epigenetics imply that prolonged emotional states might even have genetic effects that can be passed on to the next generation.

I like to consider the idea that if I strive to be the best person I can; that is, the most kind, caring, patients, understanding, and tolerant I can be, then perhaps positive genetic effects that come from these prolonged states in me might be passed on to my children.

And don’t worry if you are not in the place right now where you can focus in this way. I have had prolonged times in my past when I’ve been depressed and it’s been extremely hard. I think of it as us constantly writing genetic programs, in terms of which genes are switched on and off. For instance, we activate a stress program when we’re stressed and a calm program when we’re calm. We can teach ourselves ways of being that are healthy in the long-term for both mind and body, and we will activate a program associated with that way.

So any programs running right now, if they are unhealthy, can be deactivated in time. All things eventually change. Stress can be replaced with calm, anger with compassion, and aggression with gentleness.