What We Put in our Mouths: Part One January 2017
I want to share with you the things I speak about with my patients. We can infer that I talk about these topics not only for the pleasure of talking, but because it is my calling to share knowledge with the folks who come to me for healthcare. What I have learned over the years has come through the experiences of my own body, as well as from the scientific literature and my clinical practice, and it reinforces my understanding that healing is not something that occurs in the practitioner’s office alone. Honestly, it doesn’t make much sense for me to “perform a treatment” on someone for an hour, without eventually engaging them around what they are doing with their body for all those hours when they are not in my office. You both put all this hard work into getting the person better, but it doesn’t last if whatever landed them in that pickle doesn’t change. Fortunately, small but strategic changes in behavior can have meaningful effects. Let’s start with how we hold our bodies and what we put in our mouths.
The way we hold our bodies when we are upright and when we are resting is a major factor in myofascial pain, which is the most common kind of pain to have. Take neck pain, for example. When we work or sleep for hours at a time in a position that shortens our neck and shoulder muscles, our body never gets to realize that being longer and more flexible is normal. And I know, from the literally hundreds of times that I have messed myself up, that something as apparently simply as carrying a not-all that-heavy shoulder bag can trigger tightness in the myofascia at the back of the neck that will lead to a migraine before the night is out. The good news about such an immediate cause and effect is that we can see it and eventually train ourselves not to do it, even though we humans are a little slow at this kind of learning. And one nice thing about pain is that it brings our attention to that fact that something is not right. Aaaahhhhh, you can just smell the lemons in the lemonade!
With food, the learning curve is harder to navigate. It is so complex how we navigate food, even among those who are not consumed by it. For most of us, It is not at all apparent what “eating better” even means, much less how one would go about doing it. And for many, eating is a very emotionally and culturally charged topic.
We have already established that we all have to eat. So let us look at the main things we put in our mouths, the food and drink we consume for both nourishment and entertainment, and start there. I make no claims to be systematic here in my approach to nutrition. For now, I will just share a few choice recommendations that are healthy across the board, but particularly relevant for people with chronic pain or inflammatory conditions.
- Minimal sugar: It appears that sugar is as bad, and probably worse than fat in developing a pro-inflammatory environment in the body. Be careful of items with “high fructose corn syrup”, or items labeled “no added sugar” that contain concentrated fruit juice, which is high in fructose. We can train ourselves to not rely quite that much on the sweet flavoring (or the chemicals, fat, flour and additives that often go along with sugar in our diet)
- Eat the Rainbow: Nutrition is a big subject. This phrase is shorthand way of saying that deeply colored fruits and vegetables generally contain important nutrients, and different colors of foods (dark green leaves, red and blue berries, orange melons and squashes, red peppers and tomatoes) tend to have different beneficial properties. Not to “dis” white or beige foods, but the diversity inherent in foods of color gives healthy protection and resilience to the body as a whole!
- Herbs and spices for cooking: Ginger, tumeric, garlic, chiles, cinnamon, cloves, are a few of the spices with proven anti-inflammatory and pain relieving properties that can find a place in your food.
- Teas: Tulsi tea (sometimes known as holy basil) is an adaptogen that helps us cope with stress of all kinds and gives you a very calm energy. It has a lovely smooth flavor that can blend in perfectly with green or black tea, fruit juice or with other herbs. You can also buy delicious, healing combinations like “Tulsi Sweet Rose” or “Tulsi-Lemon Ginger” from Organic India.
In general, unless I am quite thirsty, I am not drawn to drinking plain water. I will do it, reluctantly I confess, because I know it is good for me. I am, however, much more likely to polish off a liter of liquid if it is flavored, so I typically brew up a liter or so something I can sip throughout the day or put in a water bottle. Hydration and herbal medicine at the same time. Think of something you can put in water that would make you want to drink it, but not turn it into a highly sugared and caffeinated beverage. Slices of cucumber or lemon, peppermint and other herb teas work well, and a little bit of sweetener or caffeine is not a crime.
Maybe not for everyone, but I know that for me, even though I have some awareness of this subject, a large part of what enters the portals of my mouth does so without my conscious awareness. I may get up to go the pantry and wonder “what the heck just made me think I need chocolate, or corn nuts just now?” I rarely have to back up more than one or two frames in the history of my thoughts to find I had been envisioning a future encounter with worry or rehashing the past with anger or sadness just seconds before the urge struck. More commonly, though, it is simply that the delicious food I am so fortunate to have on my plate disappears without my having paid much attention to how it tasted or felt going down.
Mindful eating. This is a huge and wonderful topic that I shall come back to time and again, because I believe that mindful eating is central to a healthy relationship between food and those who eat it. In the meantime I want to recommend a few resources:
- The Center For Mindful Eating, whose newsletter is, quite fittingly called Food for Thought, will help you to place the whole subject of eating into a larger context.
- Mindful Eating: a Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food with Food., Jan Chozen Bays, MD, Shambala Press. I love this useful and fun book by an author who is a pediatrican, Zen teacher and grandmother.
So that’s all for now. I leave you with my best hopes and aspirations that we may work together towards health and peace for ourselves and all our communities in the new year of 2017 and beyond.
—Marsha Haller, MD.