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Comfort Food…Explained By Science

Have you ever wondered why some foods (especially unhealthy foods) make you feel good all over?

Or why you crave certain foods when you’re sad or depressed?

Some people say meat loaf and macaroni and cheese remind them of their grandmother’s house…even if they don’t remember their grandmother ever making those items.

What is it about “comfort food” that is so…well…comforting?

Unmasking Comfort Food

Last week, we talked about the amazing zoo inside your gut…a vast ecosystem made up of trillions of microbes that manages your health. I want to continue that conversation this week and explore how your gut talks to your brain.

Conventional wisdom suggests that your brain (specifically the hypothalamus) is the network command center that controls every single cellular function in your body. While there’s some truth to that idea, your brain doesn’t work in isolation. The microbiome in your gut is a network of cells that work together to form a second brain, known as the enteric nervous system (ENS). Remember the central nervous system that links your brains to your organs? The ENS is its partner network.

The ENS is where you feel the “butterflies” when you’re excited or frightened. It operates outside of your thoughts – in fact, it can trigger feelings you can’t explain with rational thought. Stage fright, irrational anxiety, and “fight or flight” reactions start here. In fact, the tingle in your tummy when you’re nervous is the sensation of your body diverting blood from your digestive system to your muscles, in case you need to run suddenly.

Have you ever noticed that wild animals tend to eat with their ears or eyes on high alert? Eating is a dangerous time in the animal kingdom. When a mammal eats, the blood moves to their gut to enable digestion and mineral absorption, limiting their ability to react suddenly to danger. For that reason, they are highly vulnerable to predators. They have to stay very alert during feeding time. You’re better off if you can allow your body to relax while eating.

Your eyes and ears detect external danger and alert the gut to redirect blood to the muscles. In the same way, the ENS stands guard around the wall of the gut, watching for threats from inside and outside. The ENS identifies bacteria and viruses passing through the food and alerts the gut to neutralize the threat with histamines or to eject the threat with diarrhea or vomiting. The ENS sends signals back to the brain that indicate pain, nausea, fatigue, or a host of other sensations.

So why does meat loaf make you think of grandma’s house? Fatty, greasy foods coat the inner lining of the gut and trigger the ENS receptors to send happy, content, warm, safe signals back to the brain. Your brain sees the “happy, content, warm, safe” signal and translates it into images and feelings your psyche can understand. For some folks, warm and safe is best represented by a visit to grandmother’s house. For others, that feeling is associated with fun family times. I remember going to the fair with my family every time I smell carnival food, even though my logical brain starts listing off the unholy chemical ingredients in carnival food. The emotional side of the brain in my head and the brain in my gut microbiome associate that smell (and the corresponding tastes) with happy, peaceful times…even though I don’t remember the last time I ate that food.

It’s like those great philosophers, The Eagles, once said: “I’ve got a peaceful…greasy feeling.” (Now you’ll have that song stuck in your head all day.)

Food and Mood

When you understand how these two neural networks communicate with each other, it becomes clear how food can influence your mood. If your gut microbiome is agitated by the food coming through, you sense it in your emotions. I’ve had friends tell me they came out of a night of binging on Italian food and the next morning they felt lethargic, sickly, even hungover (without alcohol). Their guts were responding to the gluten in the pasta, or possibly the peppers or tomatoes, depending on their current microbial chemistry. Have you ever felt sad or apathetic after a big lunch? Moody? Grouchy? Your food may be doing the talking.

This can also help to explain emotional eating. Some people eat certain foods to cope with unpleasant emotions because the food makes them “feel better.” Instead of reaching for an anti-depressant, it might be time to switch to a fresh spinach salad for lunch.

Now, let’s consider the damage done to your gut microbiome by aggressive antibiotic therapies, chlorinated water, chemical cleaning agents, air fresheners, and a dozen other toxins that surround us every day. Plus, we’re just starting to recognize the dangers of increased electromagnetic frequency exposure (think of cell phones, wifi, radio signals, and microwave ovens). All day, every day, our gut microbiome is being blasted from all sides by hostile invaders. Could that be contributing to our stress, anger, moodiness, and depression?

There is also some compelling research linking unforgiveness to digestive diseases and cancer, but that’s a topic for “Think Right Thursday.”

What If…

Then take this premise a step further and let’s see if we can’t show a causal link between cognitive disorders, mental illnesses, or dementia to violations of the gut microbiome. I’ve seen some pretty interesting research over the years linking processed foods to autism-like behaviors and bipolar disorders. One friend of mine falls into a deep sleep about two hours after he eats bread or pasta – consistently. That’s not him being lazy, that’s his gut shutting him down while it tries to recover from assault by gluten. The gut lining is being violated by chemicals in the food, and it is playing out through the brain. This is why I get so angry at the way the American food production mafia is experimenting on people by loading their food with chemicals. We have only begun to see the first hints of the coming mental health catastrophe that our processed food industry is creating.

Anyway, there are logical explanations for the emotional response we have to food, and the gut microbiome is at the center of them all. It’s worth doing more research, and maybe a little self-assessment.

What are your favorite comfort foods? What are the foods that make you feel like crawling back into bed? Does what we learned about the gut microbiome help you understand those feelings a little better? What food choices might you make differently now? Let’s discuss in the comments on Facebook. We’ve got a little community growing there where people encourage each other to live healthy, strong lives.

“At the end of your feelings is NOTHING. At the end of your principles is a PROMISE.”  — Eric Thomas

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