Food & Fear
Updated: Aug 28, 2018
Having battled an ever-shifting and lengthening list of food intolerances over the years, I’ve begun to notice an interesting relationship between my expectations about food and how my body reacts to it. And it yields an important lesson for all of us, even the less digestively-challenged.
I'm talking about the relationship between food and fear.
What I began noticing recently, and hearing about from others in similar circumstances, is that I am sometimes able to tolerate a certain food just fine, but when I try it again a week or a month later, the exact same item is my undoing. I was confident I was controlling for other possible factors that could be impacting my reactions, and so was stumped at my inconsistent results.
I was rigorously trained in experimental design, so the mystery of my erratic food reactions didn’t sit well and continued to nag at me. (My undergrad studies were dedicated to preparing for entry into a doctoral fMRI lab focused on stimulus processing in the visual cortex, until I realized that staring at the brains of people staring at black dots wasn’t something I could do for the next 50 years.)
Then it hit me: the mystery variable, the one that was skewing my results because I hadn’t controlled for it, was my mindset.
The days I tested foods while I was feeling relaxed (a rarity), I had no reactions. The days I approached the same experimental item with trepidation and unease about the possible aftermath, my fears came true. I was creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Now before you dismiss this as the placebo response of a hypochondriac or new age psychobabble, there is hard scientific rationale that backs up this hypothesis.
Our beliefs and expectations prime our bodies’ biochemistry to handle whatever situation we are mentally gearing up for. We all know some of the very real physical manifestations of the stress of anticipation: your hands get sweaty before going on stage to do a presentation, your heart races before a stressful meeting or when you’re about to see someone you’re really attracted to. This state of anticipation tells your body to kick into gear and prepare for action.
In more scientific terms, this is known as sympathetic (nervous system) arousal. When your SNS is at the wheel, a cascade of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol begin pumping, with some notable effects. There are the obvious ones like sweaty palms or a racing heart, but there are also subtler ones that most of us aren’t aware of: digestion slows, immune response is impaired, and intestinal permeability increases. After all, none of these are mission-critical functions in a fight-or-flight scenario. And while we may intellectually know that our scary meeting or exciting date or (in my case) potentially harmful food isn’t truly an existential threat, our reptilian brains don’t know the difference - the same stress response is triggered regardless.
When your environment or expectations trigger that fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system response at inopportune moments, your body is busy mobilizing for the wrong task. Food ingested under stress (SNS arousal) cannot be properly broken down, and instead of nourishing us, becomes an assault on our mucosal lining and immune system. Things like digestion, cellular repair, immune response, etc. actually require an opposite set of biochemical reactions, which only get to come out and play when your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is running the show. Parasympathetic activation is often casually referred to as the “rest and digest” phase for exactly this reason.
After years and dozens of dietary mishaps, I had come to associate eating with fear. Pretty much anything other than bottled water and gently massaged, organic, free range, highly self-actualized kale was a candidate to trigger a reaction that would knock me out for days, so the stakes of making a miscalculation were high. In my mind, food became a threat and a trap instead of a source of nourishment and life. Combine that with a longstanding tendency toward orthorexia as a means of regaining control during otherwise chaotic life circumstances, and I had unwittingly concocted myself a very potent fear cocktail that I was sipping with every bite.
When I was primed for stress because of my expectations and fear around eating, my body truly was reacting differently. But it wasn’t because of anything inherently bad about the food - my diet was already insanely clean by this point. Rather, I was putting totally fine and inoffensive food into an environment (me) that simply was not prepared to do anything constructive with it.
Why am I sharing this?
For the minority of you who may be dealing with a similarly baffling list of food intolerances that feel like a moving target, keeping an eye on your mindset in the moments leading up to a meal or trial reintroduction may be a missing piece of the puzzle for you to explore. Ditto for those in the tricky slog of unraveling the web between eating-disordered thought, behavior, and response.
For the majority of you, though, the message is still relevant: when you are stressed, you are not able to rest, digest, and repair the way your body needs to for long-term health. Carving out times of peace and calm to enjoy your meals is critical if you want to actually reap the health-giving benefits of food and avoid digestive discomfort and leaky gut issues.
If you are chronically stressed and wired, you can get stuck almost 24/7 in “sympathetic dominance,” to devastating long term effect. Even outside of mealtimes, prioritizing periods where you’re not being constantly interrupted and drained by your phone going off, listening to the news in the background, rushing late to a meeting, in conflict with your loved ones, berating yourself, or amped up on sugar/caffeine, is non-negotiable if you want to avoid the long term effects of unrelenting sympathetic arousal: not just digestive impairment, but also exhaustion, irritability, burnout, weight gain, chronic pain and illness just to name a few.
Give your SNS a much-needed vacation on a regular basis, and let the PNS shine and do its all important cleanup and repair work. Different techniques work for different people, but some easy and low-cost approaches like deep breathing, sitting outside, taking a bath, using CBD oil (careful with that one if you tend toward depression), gentle yoga and meditation are common favorites to activate your PNS.
Yes, you've heard these suggestions a thousand times, and now you understand one more often-overlooked reason why they're important. And if you’re a hard charging overachiever who runs on adrenaline to get through your day and dismisses such de-stressing suggestions as ludicrously unrealistic for your lifestyle, try thinking about it the way you think about saving for retirement: it’s a small sacrifice and habit change in the short term that you absolutely cannot afford to put off, for the sake of future you.
Sometimes, getting your SNS to take a hike when it’s not needed is as simple as giving yourself a little pep talk before facing your stressor: “I am perfectly equipped to handle this. Nothing and no one is out to get me. I’ve got this.” And you do.