Shame and Digestion.
We're into Part Three of this "Gut Health for the Holidays" series, and I'm taking a brief detour off of the well tread path of science and "health" to venture into the brain waves/patterns of thinking/psychology behind food.
Last week I shared about the gut brain connection, emphasizing that our gut has its very own nervous system. It is capable of communicating information to the brain, and the brain is capable of communicating information to the gut. Moreover, 90% of the communication is happening from the gut to the brain.
Remember the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve runs from the medula (the last part of the brainstem) all the way down to the gut, passing through the heart and touching various organs like the lungs and the liver on its journey. The vagus nerve operates at a level that is beyond your conscious awareness; breathing? It's autonomic, meaning it happens whether or not you intend it to, but, that said, you can also bring conscious awareness to the inhale and the exhale. In contrast, the vagus controls the "rest and digest" nervous system via "vagal tone," which is the term given to the ability of your vagal response to relax and calm down, returning your systems to your "normal" settings, after a stressful encounter. The stronger your vagal tone, the quicker your body can come down. While still autonomic, you may feel you have less control of your vagal tone than you do your breath.
But... is this an unchangeable truth?
Our thoughts are powerful. Our thoughts about food. Our bodies. In yoga, we call this "the mental modifications of the mind-stuff" or the "chitta vritti" aka "the monkey chatter of the mind." Science has recently begun exploring this on a more mainstream level, and you may even have heard the term "neuroplasticity" bandied about. To be clear, I'm not an expert on neuroplasticity, but I do find the entire subject fascinating and empowering.
In short and very brief terms, neuroplasticity is based on the notion that the brain is "plastic," or it can continue to change throughout the course of your life. Established science marks the end of childhood development as the end of growth and after that, it was thought the brain remains relatively static.
i.e. "You can't teach an old dog new tricks."
Which... is less than empowering. The old way enforces the idea that "I am what I am and that's all that I am," and I'm not going to change these habits, even if I think I might want to. It's rather... final.
Neuroplasticity, instead, introduces the notion that the brain is flexible, and we can learn new patterns. New ways of being.
Here's the main message of today: by cultivating a mind that is free from the bondage of the "mental modifications of the mind-stuff" or the "chitta vritti" aka "the monkey chatter of the mind," you're actually working on strengthening the tone of your vagus nerve and quickening your body's recovery from a stressful encounter.
More simply put: your conscious thoughts can be altered, and by altering your conscious thoughts (neuroplasticity), you can effect change in the autonomic (unconscious) operations of your body (i.e. vagal tone).
I'm really beating around the bush here, though, because what I really want to talk about is shame.
There is a LOT of shame in the wellness sphere. Size shaming. Food choice shaming. You're sick? Well, it's probably your fault. Depressed and feeling lackluster? Yeah. Probably the food you’re eating.
Newsflash: IT ISN’T YOUR FAULT. Sure, food IS important, I talk about that all the time. But… wouldn’t we all rather feel empowered than ashamed?
I can think of two very specific examples in which my health journey took me to this point of SHAME. I'm proud of neither, but I feel they are very important to share.
- When I shamed myself: When I lost my period for five years, I was beyond frustrated. I couldn't understand how I had lost a piece of myself that I felt SHOULD have been there, rain or shine. Having a cycle is so very integral to the female experience, and without it, I was thrown into a hormonal rollercoaster and imbalance of body, mind, and spirit.
I remember crying to my mother on several occasions; what had I done to myself? What had I done wrong? Why couldn't I fix it?
One doctor I went to, in her defense I think she was trying to impart to me how very dire the situation was, spoke words that made me feel so much shame about my body that I spent another year spinning. She wanted to put me on the pill, but I wasn't interested in a bandaid fix.
I wanted to get to the root of the issue, so I found a Functional Medicine doctor here in Baton Rouge, Dr. Betsy Buchert, who empowered me beyond measure. I shared with her my fear that my being a vegetarian for years had caused me to lose my cycle. She looked me dead in the eye and calmly stated: "You have done nothing wrong. A vegetarian should be able to have her period." And I broke down sobbing.
Now, I eventually chose to eat meat because I elected to step away from restrictive ways of eating, in general (no foods are off limits!), but she gave me the permission to forgive myself and release the shame I'd built up around my body and my choices.
- When I shamed others: Early in the business of my business and being a health coach, I inadvertently shamed. It was never my intention to shame, much like the doctor in the previous scenario, but shame I did. This is a story that still makes me cringe, so much so that I've shared with very few, but again, I feel it's important to be transparent.
My mother had breast cancer a few years ago, and she is now, wonderfully, in remission and healthy as can be insofar as that diagnosis goes. She had the BRCA testing done to find out if her cancer was an inherited gene or spontaneous. Much to our initial relief, it was determined that her cancer was not genetic.
Great news! Except that I then, having a predisposition for perfectionism and a little bit of hypochondria, decided to embark upon a PRACTICALLY PERFECT IN EVERY WAY lifestyle. Because... if her cancer was spontaneous, surely there was something in my control happening in my life (and hers) that could be corrected so that her cancer wouldn't return and I would never get it.
I didn't intentionally infer that she had somehow caused her own cancer, but I do remember one very specific interaction that I have since made amends for. We were cooking dinner, she and my aunt, and she poured olive oil all over her vegetables to pop in the oven to roast. I asked her WHY she still uses olive oil for roasting rather than a higher heat oil!? HOW MANY TIMES HAVE I TOLD YOU THAT YOU SHOULD USE A HIGHER SMOKE POINT OIL AT HIGH TEMPERATURES.
*blink blink blink* over react much?
She then said, "I've been using olive oil for years and I'm still here."
"Yes," I shot back. "But you did have breast cancer."
Ahhhhhh. So. Horrible. I remember the shock on her face and the tongue click from my aunt. Too far. I'd gone too far. And my fear of OLIVE OIL was actually insane.
A lot of "health culture" these days (think: clean eating) is based in shaming others for their food choices, elevating certain foods and demonizing others, and treating food as though it is some sort of barometer for the value you place on your life.
Don't get me wrong, I believe in food as medicine. I believe in whole food. I believe in eating well; nutrient dense foods, mostly plants. But, as I tell ALL of my clients: I WILL NEVER TELL YOU WHAT TO EAT. And I will NEVER shame you for your choices. I also believe in enjoying a burger on a warm summer night with some french fries and maybe a cold beer. I also believe in birthday cake and ice cream. I believe in King Cake and savoring your favorite holiday dessert.
You know what shame does? It makes you doubt yourself. It makes you stress out. If you can't trust yourself, who can you trust?
THIS is where the work I do comes into play. THIS is Soul Food. This is how not only WHAT we eat but HOW we eat becomes a factor.
The goal, then, is to learn to trust yourself. With a solid understanding of your body and also some food education, you can begin to discern your personal truth amidst the noise.
Let's bring this back to neuroplasticity and the "chitta vritti," and how this links to the ten step process I use in working with women, because what I'm really talking about here is step three of the Ten Steps to Glowing Goddess Guru Beast Mode: Wild Abandon.
Everything you need is truly within you.
As you continue to commit yourself to discovering your personal path, you’ll give yourself over to step three, Wild Abandon, relinquishing willpower and control and bravely stepping into experimentation. Allow yourself to challenge preconceived notions, food beliefs, and truths you’ve come to accept (those that you are certain of) about yourself and the world that maybe aren’t actually factual (maybe they are, but the goal here is to get curious).
Get curious about yourself. Get curious about others. Get curious about the conversations you find yourself a part of. Get curious about the things you read on social media, in the news, hear on television.
Ask questions. Play devil’s advocate. Challenge yourself and others.
Seek your truth. Speak your truth. And want what you want.
This is all as important to your digestion as chewing and taking a probiotic.