There are different entry points on the path toward emotional well-being. Since each individual is unique, what works for you may not work for someone else. One thing that is consistent, however, is the need to keep your body healthy to help you move through all life’s experiences with strength and beauty.
Humans are complex beings and you must honor that by going deeper and expanding your awareness of self to more than your physical body—you are comprised of mental and emotional “bodies” as well. When all are in harmony with each other, you live a much happier and fulfilling life. As Ayurvedic physician, Dr. Suhas Kshirsagar, author of The Hot Belly Diet, says: “You are what, how, when, and why you eat.”
Eating for Emotions
When you are feeling down, the first thing you usually think of is eating “comfort” foods. These foods, most often associated with good memories, provide an immediate soothing effect, making you crave more. During final exams, students seek out pizza, chocolate, chips, etc., and receive the same soothing benefits. Positive emotions increase as bonding occurs among family and friends around food and its enjoyment.
There are many emotional experiences associated with food. While food kindles certain desirable emotions, a stronger relationship may be that of your emotions on digestion. Lack of appetite when depressed, heartburn during high stress, or diarrhea when anxious are just a few such examples. Try eating after a stressful argument and notice how your body resists with symptoms of gas, bloating, or nausea. On the other hand, there is nothing more satisfying than enjoying a meal after a happy event and noticing how light you feel after eating.
It’s obvious there is an intimate and ancient relationship at work between your brain and your gut. This relationship protected your ancestors during the hunter-gatherer days from eating poisonous foods. In today’s world, this relationship helps you to examine all aspects of your life that are no longer providing sustenance. If there is mental or emotional turbulence, the gut will reflect this. Mental or emotional disturbances are the reason why you can be eating only the most healthy and nutritious foods and still have digestive problems. If you want to heal one, you must also heal the other.
The Layer of Food
It’s easy to overlook food as a path toward emotional well-being and yet it’s probably one of the most powerful tools you have at your disposal. Humans have become distant from food sources—food is viewed as being separate from the body. In many traditional cultures, however, food (in its unprocessed form) has an energy of its own; by ingesting this energy into yourself you replenish your life force.
Dr. David Simon, co-founder of Chopra, said, “Nature has packaged her biological energy and information in the form of food containing the basic substrates needed to create and replenish our cells; through the process of digestion, basic codes of intelligence are exchanged between our individual and our environmental physical sheaths.” There is a term in Sanskrit, that describes the physical body as anna maya kosha, which basically means “the layer made of food.”
In order to tap into nature’s intelligence, this is where it’s important to stick to whole foods as much as possible. By going back to basics, you ingest food closest to their natural form as possible, which your body has evolved to digest.
Digestive Power (Physical and Emotional)
In Ayurveda, you can’t discuss food without also talking about agni, or digestive power. Good health is determined by your body’s ability to fully metabolize material received from the environment. It’s easy to understand this concept in terms of food, but it also refers to your mind and heart. You are constantly taking in information from your surroundings and processing (digesting). Ideally, you are taking in only that which serves you and releasing anything toxic. Holding on to something (a thought or feeling) longer than you should (days, weeks, years) leads to an imbalance, which can cause disturbances in both your body and mind.
For example, there are some people who can have a difficult discussion, then they easily let it go and move on to the next thing. These same people seem to eat and drink anything, and digest easily. Meanwhile, there are others who have a hard time processing certain experiences and usually end up with delicate digestive systems. The latter would be considered to have a weak agni while the first exemplifies strong agni.
You want your agni to be strong so you can take in your foods and extract all the nourishing health benefits they have to offer. The same applies to how you should process (digest) life’s experiences. Your body and mind intrinsically want to lean toward harmony and balance and it does this by doing what it does best—digest. How do you stoke this fire?
Eating for Emotional Well-being
One of the first actions to take will be to start taking notice of what you eat, when you eat, and how you feel. Consider keeping a journal to help you keep track and start identifying some possible patterns. Notice any changes in behavior over time, such eating more slowly, changes in food preference, etc.
Remember, your ability to metabolize food is as important as what you choose to eat. The same goes with the experiences you choose to have. Incorporate some self-care activities into your daily routine to start bringing equanimity to all layers of your being. It is from stillness and peace that you build the strength and courage to make the right choices. The following are a few self-care activities you can start with:
- Engaging in pleasant conversations
- Walking in nature
You live with many distractions and so you must teach yourself how to cultivate present-moment awareness. When you are aware you are present to enjoy life, food, and all the things in between. Bring this same awareness to preparing and consuming food and the benefits will increase.
You deserve to experience all that life has to offer. Luckily, you were born with an inner compass in the form of messages from your body such as the gut-and-brain relationship. The only requirement is to listen. An ancient Ayurvedic saying states “when our digestive power is robust, we can convert poison into nectar—but if digestion is weak we convert nectar into poison.” This is the power and influence of agni and why so much attention is placed on it. The more you explore your inner world, the more your digestive fire is stoked. In doing so, watch how the outer world will flourish and emotional well-being will be an added benefit.
14 Tips for Getting Optimal Nourishment from Food
The following is a list of basic principles to follow when preparing and eating food that will help your body extract the highest levels of nourishment from every bite. This style of eating, which comes from Ayurveda, encourages strong digestion. You will notice it first in the physical body, but it has the ability to influence to affect mental and emotional “digestive” strength as well. These principles are referred to as body intelligence techniques and should be followed at every meal as best as possible.
- Eat in a settled environment
- Never eat when upset—wait until you have settled down
- Always sit down to eat—preferably in a place where you can eat mindfully
- Eat only when you feel hungry—think of your appetite as a fuel gauge with 0 being empty and 10 being full, wait until you are a 2 or 3 before eating and stop at a 6 or 7
- Reduce ice-cold food and drinks—your digestion functions better at room temperature
- Eat at a moderate pace—try to chew thoroughly before taking the next bite
- Wait until one meal is digested before starting the next—wait until you start to feel hungry—if you are not sure, drink some water and see how you feel
- Sip warm water with your meals—this aids the digestive process
- Eat freshly cooked meals—fresh ingredients as close to the source as possible has more prana, or life force
- Reduce raw foods—they can be harder to digest for some; light cooking helps to ease digestion
- Experience all six tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, astringent) at every meal—this helps to ensure satiety
- Drink milk separately from meals, either alone or with other sweet foods—Ayurveda considers milk to be a complete food by itself
- Leave one-third to one-fourth of your stomach empty to aid digestion—like a washing machine, it’s best to leave room for churning to help optimize digestion
- Sit quietly for a few minutes after your meal—this is a time to savor the meal and contemplate gratitude for all that nature has provided
You don’t have to do all of these at once! Choose one or two that sound doable and you can add on from there. At first it may seem awkward, but with consistent practice they will become part of your regular routine.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.