Gut Feelings - Healing the Shame-Fuelled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel by Dr Will Cole

Gut Feelings Healing the Shame-Fuelled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel by Dr Will Cole

Our Wise Guide: Confront shame and heal your relationship with food to enjoy better health.

Medical research has confirmed that the age-old chestnut, trust your gut, is actually biologically accurate. Your digestive system is a veritable ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, and yeasts interacting with extensive neural networks and communicating directly with the brain. A healthy gut microbiome helps regulate mood, energy, hormones, and sleep to help you feel vital and energized. A deficient microbiome can do the opposite, triggering body-wide responses like inflammation, poor digestion, and insomnia, and can even affect mental health. Conditions that used to be considered unrelated to physical health, like depression, anxiety, and PTSD, are increasingly being shown to have both psychological and physical causes.

This key idea is not a fix-yourself-overnight take on wellness, though. It offers information about how gut health is far more than just physical. It will explore how emotions and chronic stress play outsized roles in overall health, and what you can do to address these without crash diets or overnight life changes. The gentle, mindful, three-week plan is designed to illuminate your current diet and lifestyle, find the emotional roots of your health, and give actionable advice for slowing down and nourishing your body, mind, and spirit.

Key idea 1
Food for Thought: Shame and the Second Brain
There’s a reason why the gut is linked so closely to intuition: the intestines contain somewhere between 200 and 600 million neurons. That essentially means your intestines are a part of your nervous system, in constant communication with your brain. When you’re feeling butterflies before a big date, or your stomach turns when you think about a betrayal, that’s not random – it is clear evidence of the gut acting as a second brain, sending important messages about what’s going on.

These responses are so strong in part because these neurons are connected to the vagus nerve, the largest individual nerve in the body, which winds from the base of the skull down past the heart and onward through the gut. In other words, the gut not only controls digestion, but also regulates the immune system, mood, and overall metabolism.

But because the gut is so full of neurons, it is incredibly sensitive to emotions and stress. This was a great advantage for early hunter-gatherers: if an angry lion suddenly pounced, their gut emptied itself before they’d even processed what was happening. They could run more quickly and perhaps live long enough to have children.

But in modern life, stress isn't as straightforward as running from a hungry lion. Modern stress is chronic. From financial worries to relationships, job struggles to traffic jams, many are dealing with stress on a daily basis, and it’s having an outsized impact on health.

That’s because emotions affect the gut directly, which in turn influences mood. Remember the gut microbiome mentioned earlier? There’s about five pounds of microbes in your intestines. Chronic stress spurs the overgrowth of bad bacteria, leading to a widespread immune response – inflammation – in the digestive tract. While physical and mental health are treated as separate, they are, in fact, intertwined. And some emotions have a particularly strong impact on the gut – especially shame.

Why shame? It’s because, of all the negative emotions, shame has at its heart feelings of inadequacy, fear, and worthlessness. These feelings send a powerful message to the physical body – so powerful, in fact, that the author has called this effect shameflammation. Like a negative spiral, unresolved stress leads to feelings of inadequacy and shame, which affects mood, health, and wellness, leading to yet more shame.

Sadly, shame also has a tendency to keep sufferers from seeking help – from thinking they’re worthy or capable of changing diet, or habits, or negative life situations that in turn fuel more feelings of shame. When this becomes chronic, inflammation may also become chronic, and begin to affect health.

How to begin healing this relationship between shame and gut health? That’s what we’ll take on next.

Key idea 2
Know What’s Eating You
While gut health influences mental and physical health more than previously thought, the same is true of emotions and your gut. That means that optimum gut health isn’t a matter of juice cleanses, restrictive diets, or relentless exercise routines. It’s about feeling and expressing your emotions with self-compassion. That’s because shame, like bad gut bacteria, thrives in environments of stress, disconnection, and exhaustion. To end shameflammation, it’s vital to slow down, tune in, and reconnect.

For instance, many seeking treatment at the author’s clinic have eliminated all possible trigger foods, and suffered through severe elimination diets, but still have symptoms of irritable bowel or ulcerative colitis. Others have exhaustive exercise and diet routines, but their bodies still carry excess weight due to unprocessed past trauma. These people may feel their lack of success in treatment is their fault, leading to increased stress and shame.

So the first step on the road to recovery from shameflammation is to be gentle with yourself. Self-compassion is a powerful healing tool, and can begin to uncover complex situations that are causing chronic stress and feelings of inadequacy. Judging yourself harshly may even be causing poor choices in diet, disrupted sleep routines, or a lack of exercise. It is hard to make time for meditation if you don’t fundamentally believe that you deserve it.

Many of life’s chronic stresses come from tolerating intolerable situations in the name of keeping the peace, not rocking the boat, or going along to get along. The problem is, these all too often mean a lack of boundaries, or taking on extra responsibilities, and skimping on things like rest, hobbies, or sleep. Whether it’s staying late at work so as not to disappoint your boss, or binging on that fried chicken after a fight with your partner, these choices feel good in the short term, but in the long term they disconnect you from yourself.

Healing the relationship between how you feel and what you eat doesn’t begin with food, but with honesty. Connecting with why you stayed late to please your boss might mean you don’t feel confident about saying no. You might fear judgment, or even have been taught as a child that your needs aren’t important. Confronting the shame around that belief is part of gut healing.

Bringing awareness to emotions that might cause you to make poor choices about health is particularly important. Fast food and sugary treats are common comfort foods, for instance; they release feel-good chemicals in the brain, like dopamine and serotonin. But over the long term, the high fat, salt, and calorie content can lead to bloating, high blood pressure, and weight gain. So covering emotions with food, instead of feeling them, has steep costs.

Key idea 3
Ditch the FOMO to Thrive
It seems like social media is unavoidable these days. With perfect highlight reels of everyone’s curated lives on display, it can feel hard to keep up. But there’s a secret to reconnecting with yourself and healing your gut: stop trying.

Let’s face it, at the heart of FOMO, or fear of missing out, is the belief that you somehow don't measure up to the perfect lives you see while scrolling. Perfect bodies, perfect smoothie bowls, perfect relationships — comparing real life to someone’s latest reel is a recipe for shameflammation. To curb this, it’s important to fast from endless self judgements, and cultivate self-compassion.

To do this, ditch the fear of missing out, and embrace its joy. Really. Instead of wanting to be seen at the hottest parties or to keep up with the latest trends, choose instead to invest your time in activities and relationships that bring you a sense of peace and encourage authenticity.

That doesn’t mean trading an obsession with parties for a life of strict yoga, meditation, or gym workouts, either. Slow, small changes are the key to healing the relationship between your gut and your head. Taking time for meditation doesn’t mean a trendy course – it can simply be taking 10 minutes before each meal to check in with your body and feel how you’re doing. Perhaps it’s just relaxing in a chair and feeling into each body part, or allowing yourself to tune in to how you feel.

Avoiding extremes sets you up for lasting success. While crash diets or overnight life optimization might appeal in the moment, like donuts or onion rings, they don’t address how you got there, and when they fail they can lead to more feelings of shame. That’s not the self-compassion gut healing requires.

So the plan for gut health involves a single dietary and emotional task each day that you can tackle easily and successfully. One is around food, and one is around your feelings.

For instance, on the first day, you can simply try to identify one food you consume regularly that doesn’t really agree with you. Maybe it’s that afternoon latte that disrupts your sleep, or the tacos that make you feel bloated. Simply ask yourself, when you identify this food, why it is still a part of your diet. Awareness without judgment is key.

Also on the first day, feed your heart by making time for one healthy activity that you love. Things like gardening, sports, journaling, or taking a walk in nature feed your mind and your heart in what amounts to real self-care. Remembering you aren’t worthy only because of what you can do for others, but rather simply because you are you, goes a long way toward cultivating self-compassion and eliminating the shameflammation cycle.

Key idea 4
Feed Your Heart – and Your Head
So, for gut healing, reconnecting with your feelings and examining your feelings about food happen together, just like the first day described earlier.

During day two, try to give your gut some rest by eliminating snacking. Breaks of four hours or more between meals give your gut a break from digestion. If you feel the need to keep snacking, it's a good sign that your regular mealtimes lack sufficient protein, like nuts and eggs, that deliver lasting energy.

While your gut rests, it's a good time to focus on identifying all of your emotions. Emotions are complex – far beyond simple happiness or sadness. You might want to find a list of emotional words, or check out an emotions wheel online for this one. Setting aside time to identify as many emotions as you feel, along with the situations they're tied to, can bring a real sense of clarity and connection.

Continuing to nourish your body in mindful ways each day, and reconnecting with yourself at the same time, brings lasting changes. On day four, for instance, the plan encourages finding a new vegetable and learning how to prepare it. You can find a recipe, or just improvise. The planet is rich in varieties of vegetables, and preparing new recipes can unlock new worlds of flavor and nutrition.

New flavors reignite the joy of food, too. Appreciate each meal more by turning off the phone and tuning in to the flavor. Slow down long enough to smell, savor, chew, and enjoy your meal. It makes an enormous difference in how satisfied you feel.

Similarly, unlocking beautiful smells or sights in your home or office surroundings can keep those senses alive emotionally. Scented candles or fairy lights, snuggly blankets or living plants help calm the nervous system and engage the senses to surround you with a sense of relaxation and peace. It’s the perfect environment in which to connect with yourself, slow down, and de-stress.

Comfort foods aren’t off the table, either. A great way to get more nutrition, better hydration, and comfort all at the same time is to explore recipes for soup and broth. Just swapping out a solid meal for soup can help the body digest more easily. At the same time, cupping a warm mug brings comfort to body and mind, and reminds you of how worthy you are of nourishment and comfort.

Key idea 5
Small Changes, Big Results
The following days of the plan bring even more small changes to savor. Dedicate a day to exploring sources of healthy fats, like walnuts, avocadoes, wild-caught salmon, or extra virgin olive oil. Another day, try probiotic foods like sauerkraut or kefir. Choose a day to examine your sleep routine to see whether you can set yourself up for better rest by turning down the lights and logging off screens at least an hour before bedtime. You might need to eliminate caffeine in the afternoon, too, and lower your thermostat to trigger deeper sleep.

During the three weeks of the plan, you can also dedicate a day to upping your protein intake, which has a host of healing benefits and gives your body the building blocks it needs for repair. Similarly, you can choose a day to get some safe sun and up your vitamin D intake. It’s important to get natural sources of vitamin D, and sunshine for short periods can boost your mood, too.

Dedicate a day to intermittent fasting, taking a longer break between dinner and breakfast, or lunch and dinner. Take a day to examine sugar intake, particularly hidden sugars in things like processed foods, salad dressings, or fruit yogurts. Swapping them for more mindful choices makes a huge difference.

A day to focus on your water intake can yield similar big results. Drinking six to eight glasses a day can boost energy levels, curb hunger, lend stamina for exercise and regulate sleep. It can be as simple as adding a big glass of water to your morning, or remembering to sip all afternoon.

Dedicate a day to exploring healthy carbs, another to tasting a variety of herbal teas, and another to slowing down each meal so you can really tune in to when you feel full. Pick a day to examine your fiber intake, too, by exploring delicious fiber-rich foods.

Each day’s food journey is accompanied by related emotional reflections. Start by trying what the author calls a metaphysical meal. That’s just setting aside fifteen minutes to check in with yourself. You can do some stress-relieving belly breathing, or awaken to the sensations in your body with a meditative body scan. This might be what you’re really craving while you’re eyeing the birthday cake in the breakroom. Instead of diving into the sugar rush, slow down, breathe deep, tune in, and reconnect.

Set aside one day to try out a soothing bath recipe, like Epsom salts and lavender oil. Choose another to write yourself a love letter. You can’t heal your body if you don’t love it.

Strengthening your self-compassion by focusing on the positive in yourself is powerful healing.

Final Summary
Your gut has a lot more going on than simple digestion, with its ecosystem of microbes that aid immunity, regulate mood, hormones, and blood sugar levels, and curb inflammation. Keeping this ecosystem healthy means connecting with and feeling your emotions, especially shame – because millions of neurons are responding. Slowing down, and becoming aware of the emotional roots of your relationship to food, cultivates the most powerful healing force of all: self-compassion.

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