If you’re going through separation or divorce, you’re probably familiar with one or more of these symptoms: clenching in the gut, lightheadedness, forgetfulness, and lack of focus; indigestion, bloating, and digestive upsets; frequent colds/flu; cravings for caffeine, sugar, or alcohol.
It’s no secret that the negative stress arising from a family break-up can have a psychological effect on you. Ongoing chronic stress, however, can also hurt you physically. It’s all about the brain-gut connection, so choosing the best foods possible as you move through your divorce proceedings will help you not only feel your best, but also keep you clear-headed so that you can choose the best path forward.
What is the brain-gut connection?
You might think that your brain is at the epicenter of your neural system, and that it governs all bodily functions. Not quite. The notion that you can get a “gut feeling” is right on the money, because you have a second brain, and it’s located in your gut. The effectiveness of your neural system is influenced by the stress hormone cortisol, and its happier, calmer friend: the neurotransmitter serotonin. 90% of the serotonin your body produces is created in the gut, not the brain. So if what you’re eating is raising cortisol and disrupting the production of serotonin, then you’ve got the recipe for stress and possibly even depression; many studies now point to decreased serotonin as a key link in depression.
What foods increase stress?
No surprise that the typical North American diet is full of foods that can send your cortisol skyrocketing. Carbohydrates that are high in sugars or starches and low in fibre are one of the main culprits. When you eat or drink something with these types of carbs, your body breaks down the sugars and starches into glucose, the main source of energy for cells in your body. The glucose raises your blood sugar. When your blood sugar rises too fast or is in a constant state of elevation – which happens when you have a diet that is full of grains, processed foods, or sugars, and have a high glycemic index (GI) – the body reacts to the stress of trying to handle this overload, triggering not only an excess release of insulin (which can cause weight gain), but also a release of cortisol (which contributes to inflammation in the gut). This will influence the ability to produce that calming serotonin.
Tip #1: Switch to a low GI diet
A whole-foods diet high in lean proteins and high-fiber vegetables, and fruits low in refined grains is your best bet in keeping cortisol levels and inflammatory stressors low. Protein can include lean poultry, grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish, nuts, seeds, beans, or lentils. Organic is always best if you can afford it. Leafy greens and nearly every vegetable (except for white potatoes, beets, and parsnips) are low on the GI scale. Choose fruits such as apples, pears, cherries, grapefruit, and berries. Reduce your dependence on grains; even the ones that appear to be healthy (such as granola bars or bran muffins) can be full of high GI ingredients.
Tip #2: Don’t drink your calories
Whether it’s coffee, wine, orange juice, or soda pop, you’re going to be putting extra stress on your brain and your gut if you’re drinking these excessively.
Caffeine is a known cortisol stimulant and particularly harmful to people already under stress. Try to limit your daily caffeine intake to less than 400mg – which sounds like a lot until you realize that a grande brewed coffee from that ubiquitous chain has 300mg, a single can of cola between 35 and 45mg and typical energy drinks can be 80–100mg.
In addition, coffee increases acidity in the gut and decreases your ability to produce hydrochloric acid (HCl), which is essential for protein digestion. Wondering why you are getting acid reflux, indigestion, or belching? It’s likely you need more HCl – not less – so both the coffee and the over-the-counter antacids need to go in favour of naturally increasing your stomach acid. Put a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar or lemon juice in water and drink it prior to a meal. Your gut will thank you and be able to continue to produce that all-important serotonin.
You might think you’re doing yourself a favour by juicing – and you are, if the juices are made up of 80-90% vegetables and only 10-20% fruit. But if you’re using the equivalent of six or more servings of fruit to get one glass of juice, consider the sugar content – and with that, the impact on both inflammation and unhealthy levels of insulin.
Wine, beer, and particularly the mixers in alcoholic drinks have exactly the same effect on blood sugar – with the added concern that alcohol is dehydrating and a depressant, which directly affects the brain’s neurotransmitters. It will slow down your ability to produce “happy” chemicals such as serotonin or GABA, and it will also speed up your release of dopamine, which stimulates the brain’s reward centres. This creates a vicious cycle: the more you drink, the more you crave – and the more you need to keep up the happy feelings. Whether it’s more alcohol, more sugar, or more high GI carbs, your brain will be telling you to keep going as it searches for rewards.
Tip #3: Nourish your adrenal glands
Cortisol is produced in your adrenal glands – two little walnut-sized glands that sit atop your kidneys. Even though your goal is to reduce the ongoing production of this stress hormone, you also need to protect these important glands to avoid burnout. Adrenal fatigue is often characterized by chronic tiredness even after getting a lot of sleep; trouble thinking clearly, finishing tasks or making decisions; a compromised immune system (meaning you catch every germ that’s going around); and uncontrollable cravings for salty or sugary foods.
Magnesium is a critical mineral in helping to nourish the adrenals. The highest levels of magnesium are found in raw pumpkin and sunflower seeds, dark-green leafy vegetables like spinach or swiss chard, and black beans. There is also a good level of magnesium present in raw cacao; this is not chocolate, which has added sugar or dairy, but the unprocessed product from the cacao bean that has been ground into powder or rendered into nibs for use. You can use it to make your own chocolate treats by adding your own sweeteners such as a bit of raw honey, maple syrup, or xylitol, which is a sweetener that will not cause as significant a spike in blood-sugar levels.
Maca is another natural option to nurture the adrenals. It comes from a plant that grows high in the Peruvian Andes, and it is known as an “adaptogen”, which means that it increases the body’s ability to defend against both physical and mental stress, which helps ward-off illness. One to two teaspoons of maca powder can easily be added to smoothies, oatmeal, yogurt, or salad dressing each day.
Tip #4: Round out your divorce team with a nutrition professional
As you work your way through your uncoupling, you need a supportive team to ensure that you’re getting the best advice to navigate the entire process. Just as you need a lawyer for the best legal options, a financial advisor to help you make smart decisions about your money, and a therapist to let you work through the emotional aspects, a nutrition professional can help you protect your physical and mental health by advising which nutrients will support you to be your strongest, smartest, and best self for this stage of your life – and the new stage that lies beyond.
Trish Krause (CNP) is a certified holistic nutritionist who specializes in helping stressed-out men and women regain their nutritional balance and learn how to use food as a wellness tool. She works with clients face-to-face, or via phone or Skype. To learn more about her services, visit www.bite-out-of-life.com.