“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without which humanity cannot survive.”
What challenging times we face. My thoughts are with everyone impacted by Coronavirus. If you are feeling distracted, concerned or exhausted I feel your struggles; it makes sense. I work as a GP in Southampton and, in recent weeks, I have felt uneasy. The situation is unprecedented. I believe in times of adversity compassion is what is needed most; compassion for ourselves and compassion for others. In this article we will explore the relationship between our emotional health and food and, how compassion is an essential nutrient.
What is compassion?
Dr Thubten Jinpa is the creator of a course called ‘Compassion Cultivation Training’. Dr Jinpa proposes that compassion is a four-step process:
- Awareness of suffering
- Being emotionally moved by suffering
- A wish to see relief of that suffering
- Responsiveness or readiness to help relieve that suffering.
Compassion can be the key to cultivating happiness. The research is clear – when we are happier, we are healthier and when we are healthier, we perform at our best. Right now, we need to show up as our best selves.
How can my emotional health affect my food choices and how can my food choices affect my emotional health?
Feeling persistently stressed is associated with low grade systemic inflammation which can have a ripple effect throughout the body. For example, stress affects sleep quality which in turn, affects your hormones resulting in cravings for high calorie poor quality foods. Many of these foods are ultra-processed; one study showed 50% of the produce in UK supermarket shops is ultra-processed. Unfortunately, these foods damage our gut lining and harm our microbiota. In addition, many ultra-processed foods are high in fat and sugar which can affect dopamine pathways and influence our decisions. These patterns of behaviours can lead to a vicious cycle of negative emotions and depression.
How can self-compassion help my food choices?
“Compassion is a medicine.”
Director of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom
If we are compassionate with ourselves, we can observe our emotions instead of instinctively muting them. We often eat to distract ourselves from boredom, discomfort or stress. Instead, try observing your emotions with curiosity, fascination or wonder. Meditation, yoga or journaling can be useful tools for cultivating self-awareness. When we improve self-awareness, we can begin to think more rationally and make nourishing food choices that keep us happy and healthy in the long term.
What can I eat to support my emotional health?
I have a simple mantra, adapted from Michael Pollen:
“Eat real food, purposefully, in rhythm and mostly colourful plants.”
The first and most important food principle is to focus on whole foods; centre your meals around foods that your great grandparents would recognise. Eat meals at regular times and slow down. Lastly, eat a wide variety of plant-based foods.
The research in nutritional psychiatry is exciting. The SMILES trial, conducted in 2017, demonstrated how a modified Mediterranean diet can induce remission in patients with depression.
I appreciate eating a whole food diet can be challenging when working long shifts – do what you can. Your happiness, health and performance are worth it. We owe it to ourselves and to the patients we care for.
“Self-care and self-love are not selfish.”
Dr Nilesh Satguru
BM MRCGP DOccMed Dip IBLM
Coach, GP and Certified Lifestyle Medicine doctor
Regional director @ British Society of Lifestyle Medicine