Food and the Mind

How leaders can take advantage of nutrition to hone their gut instinct and reduce stress and anxiety.

with Rhaya Jordan

Leaders – hone your gut instinct

With the rule book being torn up in these times of uncertainty, we need to rely more frequently on our ‘gut instinct’ when making decisions. Which refers to the metaphor of our reliance on inbuilt experience and emotional response to a situation to assist in our decision making. But what if our ‘gut instinct’ was not a metaphor at all and there was instead a proven link between our gut, our heart, and our brain? If this were the case then how we feed ourselves takes on a new level of importance and rather than a mere function of survival it stimulates performance, enhances resilience, and stabilises our emotional response to stress and anxiety.

In the second in our series examining the different aspects of resilience we talked to leading natural health expert and nutritionist, Rhaya Jordan to discuss the Mind Body link and the many fascinating effects of diet on our levels of stress and anxiety. Using over thirty years of experience working in multiple sectors, including hospitality, she delved into the links between nutrition and resilience. As Rhaya claimed at the beginning of our session, “we can’t do anything about what the next 12months is going to bring, but we can control what we eat so as not to add to the mayhem”.

“The Wanderer”

We assume that our experience of stress, depression or anxiety is entirely psychological, but in reality, it is a complex interplay between the state of your body and what is happening in your environment. By making small changes to our diet, it is possible to increase our inner immunity and resilience. Recent research has proven that ‘gut instinct’ is not a metaphor, it is a physical process that links messages from our gut to the brain and heart. Messages are transported via the Vagal Nerve, (the name of which derives from the Latin word for ‘wanderer’). Therefore, what we put into our gut has a direct impact on emotional responses and certain functions of the body.

Regulating our Serotonin and Dopamine levels

Over 90% of our serotonin, (the neurotransmitter that relays messages from one part of the brain to another modulating mood, desire, and function amongst others) is manufactured in the gut, but we are dismissive of the impact the serotonin in our gut has on the serotonin in our brain. Preserving the serotonin in our gut, however, has a direct correlation on our mental health, acting in a similar capacity as antidepressants. In effect providing a natural, harmonious alternative to chemicals whose side effects can include weight gain and rebound depressions. Eating differently therefore could give us just as much of a mental edge without the side effects of chemical alternatives.

A similar correlation exists in the production of dopamine, (an important neurotransmitter performing functions in the brain and body including the control of hormones and behaviour) which is produced as a reaction to certain pleasurable and motivational activities. Inactivity, boredom, and restlessness are the enemies of dopamine production and a wholesome diet. When bored, a common reaction is to reach for the snacks. However, these signals from the brain are often related to a need for activity rather than hunger, they are highlighting the need for a rest or a change of scene. If we turn to sugar as a substitute for boredom it can have unintended effects on the body. Sugar hacks the dopamine pathways from brain to body. Rather than a sugary snack, Rhaya advocates a change of scene. Take a short break, take some exercise, move to a different room, or change your activity. Allow the brain to recharge and reset rather than continuing to drive ourselves onwards to the inevitable sugary substitute.

Dump the diet

We are all different, what works for one person may not work for the other. The tiny variations in our genetic code and gut flora means that how we extract calories from food also differs. Two people on the same diet can have completely different metabolic responses to it. This rationale also extends to the mental health response to diet. For example, drinking coffee after eleven at night can have dramatic effects on some people’s sleep patterns but negligible affects for others. Therefore, a general approach to diet does not work. Instead of viewing what we eat as a combination of good or bad foods, advocated by the latest dietary trend, it is about working out what food leaves you feeling good and makes you feel well.  

For many of Rhaya’s clients this involves Food Tracking. A simple technique whereby the client takes note of what they eat, when they eat it and how it affects their mood – a food diary. It need not be elaborate just a notepad with scribbles on what we eat and how we feel as the day progresses.

Being curious and non-judgemental about our diet will lead to greater understanding and enable us to evaluate trends, patterns and the correlation between our diet, our performance, and our emotions. This critical self-awareness tool creates a level of knowledge and understanding that places us in a powerful position when considering how best fortify ourselves for forthcoming challenges. Creating the conditions for change        

To achieve enduring behavioural change, what starts with self-awareness and knowledge must lead to action. That action however need not be giant, life altering leaps into the unknown. The more likely path to success lies in taking small, achievable steps along a clear, considered path. Rhaya advocates a similar tactic when assessing changes to our diet. 

The importance of structure

As a result of the pandemic many people have lost the structure of their day. This can manifest itself in a change in our diet resulting in a detrimental impact on our moods and ability to function. Rhaya highlights the importance of putting this structure back into our diet.

Tracking food intake is not just about what we eat but when we eat. Before the industrial age people ate an agrarian diet with their main meals taken mid-morning and at sunset, it was only with factory

working that the concept of three meals a day arose, a concept that does not necessarily fit with the way we work today. With changes to our working day, place of work and pattern of work we often find ourselves hungry outside of our mealtimes. Rather than snacking Rhaya suggests changing our mealtimes to suit our hunger patterns. If we are hungry at five o’clock, take a break, eat your meal, then return to work. More likely this will result in a more productive final few hours at work and take the stress off the body that is caused by eating large, complex meals late in the evening. There has been considerable research by the likes of Sachin Patel into the effects of eating before going to bed. The circadian rhythms that affect our body mean that our gut flora rests at night, therefore our digestive acid is lower, and our body struggles to break down food. This has been found to put the body under stress at a time when it should be recharging and recovering from the day’s exertions.

Linked to this we asked Rhaya about the latest thinking regarding the value of fasting. Rhaya again pointed to the research undertaken by Sachin Patel which has found that there are advantages to fasting. Namely it allows our Sichuan genes to work more effectively. These genes are responsible for a lot of repair work in the body and do not kick in unless we are fasting. Therefore, the body will thank us for going without food for short periods of time. To do this Rhaya supports stretching the time between dinner and breakfast. Ideally, we would have a 12 or 14 hour gap between meals so having an earlier dinner (as mentioned above) and a slightly later breakfast allows this repair work to take place. Rhaya was keen to point out however that for people with a disrupted or conflicted relationship with food this must be done cautiously to avoid bingeing at the end of a fast and the physiological damage associated with this.

Despite our best intentions, for many the ability to resist snacking often proves too much. In times of high stress and uncertainty the need for ‘treats’ becomes overwhelming. Rhaya challenges what she calls the ‘Puritan’ approach to diet. All too often taking on a restrictive diet that removes the things we love has limited benefits with people reverting to type after a short period of time. Over 90% of people add between 5-10% more body weight after a period of dieting. So, do not take it away, just change the quality of the treat.  Rhaya suggests being more imaginative with our treats such as adopting interesting teas to drink, (e.g., kombucha) or making simple wholesome snacks (e.g., fridge cakes) without the sugar but with plenty of interesting flavours. There are lots of simple recipes available online, make it quick, make it often and make it easy and it is more likely to remain part of your new routine.

Build a strong nutritional scaffold

A good example of making innovative changes to your diet is the case of the New York Times restaurant critic, Mark Bittman who was advised that changing to a Vegan diet was necessary to lower his cholesterol. However, given his line of work, this would prove tricky. His solution was to adopt what he termed, a ‘flexitarian’ diet, i.e., before 6pm he ate an exclusively Vegan diet after that he ate what he wanted. An interesting solution to a seemingly impossible situation.

When considering the issue of food addiction Rhaya provided some interesting insight into causes and solutions. Many people have ‘trigger foods’ i.e. foods that once they start eating, they find it difficult to stop (e.g. sweets). This can be driven by two things, physical hunger or dopamine, which is more often than not the manifestation of a sugar addiction. This can often lead to irritability and mood swings, “I want pizza, I want it now, nothing else will do”. Working out what these ‘trigger foods’ are is the first step to a lasting solution. Look for the emotional trigger (change in mood) and then slow down the response to sugar. Be aware that this is a need for sugar rather than a genuine hunger and respond accordingly. This can be as simple as having a glass of water, eating an alternative food or ultimately by removing the trigger food from our homes or offices altogether.

When considering small, achievable changes to behaviour Rhaya also favours including small, strenuous bouts of exercise into our daily routines. As mentioned above often we can confuse the need to rest and recharge with the need to eat. Simply taking a short bout of exercise, going for a walk, or even taking a shower when tired, can revitalise the mind and body. Allowing us to return to the task refreshed and renewed. Taking a short break, although seemingly a challenge in a full day, can mean having a more productive end to the day.

If we can build ‘scaffold’ around our behaviours that reinforce our understanding and awareness we can improve our chances when placed in conditions of stress and anxiety. Changing long entrenched habits and behaviours is undoubtedly a challenge. Hence the need to be clear in our objectives and set small, realistic goals.

A seasonal survival guide

To conclude we asked Rhaya for her advice on how we might navigate the choppy waters of Christmas eating to stay healthy, reduce stress and enjoy the season. Expecting the worst, it came as a relief that Rhaya’s first piece of advice was to relax and enjoy it as much as we can, approaching the holiday from a mindset of relaxation and enjoyment rather than guilt and punishment. Rhaya proposed several ways we could build ‘scaffold’ that can help your body enjoy the time off.

On a basic level consider that caffeine and sugar are linked to increased anxiety whereby good quality fats and proteins are linked to reducing anxiety. Rhaya’s first piece of advice was to give yourself some time off. If feeling overfed, take time out and spend an afternoon on broths or water and fruit. If we know there is a rich, sugary meal planned later in the day, prepare at the start of the day with a high protein breakfast (e.g., scrambled eggs and smoked salmon). As a rule, taking in good fats and proteins at breakfast, at a time that suits you best, (that could mean mid or early morning) will set us up nicely for the rest of the day. To help stabilise our blood sugar levels throughout the day and have a light lunch in preparation for a large evening meal. Rhaya also advised having some probiotics (e.g., Rhamnosus), B Vitamins and Milk Thistle to hand to help nurture our gut flora, protect our liver, and reduce anxiety If thinking of going alcohol free, make it interesting and don’t forget to drink plenty of water.

Key Considerations

  • ‘Gut instinct’ is not a metaphor, what we eat affects how we feel, think and act.
  • Preserving the serotonin in our gut can act in a similar fashion to an antidepressant.
  • Avoid eating sugary snacks when bored. Take a short break instead.
  • Get curious about your diet. Work out what food makes you feel good. Try Food Tracking to take note of the correlation between your food intake and your mood.
  • Avoid restrictive diets, instead try making small realistic changes to your diet.
  • Don’t feel bound to three meals a day. Structure your mealtimes to when you feel hungry and your working patterns.
  • Treat yourself but make them a healthy alternative.
  • Slow your food intake, eat more slowly, or try eating with your non dominant hand.
  • Caffeine + sugar = increased anxiety

Good fats (e.g. nuts, nut butter, avocados, olive oil) + protein = decreased anxiety

  • If you want a mince pie that’s fine but balance it later in the day by eating plenty of vegetables.