How what you eat affects how you feel
Without exception, all the ancient wisdom traditions recognised the connection between what we consumed on a daily basis and our state of health and happiness.
Ancient Western medicine was all about using diet to balance the Humours. Buddhist tradition has long worked on the concept of Qi, or energy, and the importance of balancing it correctly through movement and diet. And the Ayurvedic tradition is deeply rooted in the concept of Sattva. Literally translated from the Sanskrit, Sattva means ‘the path to equilibrium and essence’.
Only as recently as 2013 did modern scientists begin to appreciate the truths behind these ancient teachings. For years they had been studying the micro-biome (the symbiotic colonies of millions of bacteria that live on our skin and inside our digestive systems), but it was only in 2013 that they realised the causal link between that biome and our experience of health and happiness. As any yogi or yogini will tell you, it is the small things that matter, and in this case it is very small things indeed that matter a lot.
Our bodies interact with the external world through the vast surface area of the skin that is exposed to it. This includes the skin on the outside of our bodies and also that of our intestines (which are really our ‘outsides’ on the inside). But the very first line of defence that we have is the bacteria that colonise these surfaces and which manage the interface between our bodies and the environment on our behalf. The bacteria on our skin and in our gut fight off invaders, assist in the digestion and absorption of nutrients and work to maintain equilibrium throughout our system. When their balance is disrupted, our balance is disrupted. In other words, we become infected, become inflamed, feel unhappy, and become ill.
The bacteria in our gut communicate on a nano-second by nano-second basis with our brain via millions of neural gateways that exist along the length of our GI Tract specifically to facilitate this process. 90% of the serotonin we need to balance our emotions is produced by these bacteria. Over 80% of our immune system is likewise governed by the bacteria that we host. When we have the right combination, or balance, of bacteria in our tummies, we feel good and positive. When that balance goes out of whack, through poor diet or excessive medication, we get ill, anxious and depressed.
Different strains of bacteria colonise different parts of our digestive tract – stomach, upper or small intestine, and the lower bowel or large intestine. These are the areas of the body which are associated, respectively, with the Third, Second and First Chakras and it is interesting to look here at the new convergence of thinking between ancient and modern traditions.
When the Third Chakra is in balance, we feel self-respect and self-compassion. When out of balance, we may either have issues with anger or dominance or conversely lose our sense of self. The physical symptoms of imbalance here include stomach ulcers, digestive issues and GERDS all of which we now know are directly linked to dysbiosis (an unbalancing of the stomach flora). Interestingly, the Ayurvedic and ACM cure for these symptoms is to eat food rich in antioxidants and fibre, both of which are known to benefit our friendly bacteria.
Likewise with the Second Chakra, the state of the flora in our small intestine impacts how we feel. When balanced, we are passionate and outgoing. When out of balance, we have difficulty committing to relationships and expressing our emotions. Physical symptoms of imbalance in the second chakra include urinary problems and joint pain, especially in the hips and lower back. For centuries, sattvic principles have recommended sweet foods such as bananas, pears and honey to stimulate the second chakra. We now know that these foods contain key minerals and particular non-soluble fibres that are especially beneficial to the bacteria in the small intestine. If our second chakra is underactive, however, we may crave these and other (less healthy!) sweet things to restore balance. If they are eaten to excess, the scales are tipped the other way, resulting in candidiasis (an overgrowth of hostile bacteria and fungus), a direct cause of urinary infections, inflammation and depression.
With the First, or Root chakra, things get really interesting. The root chakra is all about our sense of security. When it is overactive, we may overeat, even become bulimic, in a bid to calm our insecurities, when underactive we may just give up and this leads to depression, chronic fatigue and eating disorders such as anorexia. Physical symptoms of imbalance in this chakra include compromised immunity, arthritis, knee pain and constipation. Medical science today now tells us that these symptoms are all caused by inflammation, itself caused by an imbalance in the flora of the lower intestine. The foods recommended by the ancients to address these issues include either stimulating foods such as peppers and spices, or cooling foods such as leafy vegetables which, interestingly, are all foods that are particularly beneficial to the healthy bacteria of the lower colon.
As your practice in yoga already tells you, everything is connected. And at last modern science has caught up with the ancients and is beginning to understand the causal link between what we eat and how we feel. When the micro-biome is kept balanced and healthy by a diet of whole foods, our levels of inflammation are significantly reduced, our immune system is boosted and our happiness is positively affected. On a practical level, we are able to absorb more nutrients and our mental balance is assured both by increased levels of serotonin and by effective communication along the neural pathways between our brain and our gut. This means our susceptibility to disease is significantly decreased.
The ancients have always used food to correct imbalances. Today, we have scientific proof that they were correct. As Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”.
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