The connection between food and mental health is an increasingly important topic in the wellness world, but integrating nutrition into a trauma recovery plan (or any kind of mental health plan) still isn’t talked about often. It’s one that UK nutrition therapist and eating disorder recovery coach Kaysha Thomas wishes people would talk about more.
While food alone can’t heal someone from trauma—an emotional and physical response to a deeply stressful event or series of events like an accident, death, or assault—she recently explained on Instagram that it can play an important role. “The important thing to remember is that chronic stress is a catabolic process; it breaks down healthy tissues. Therefore, we need to give the body sufficient building blocks and counteract inflammation caused as a result,” Thomas writes in her post. That can be accomplished with nutrition.
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For someone working through trauma, eating regular meals often falls by the wayside, but when you aren’t fueling your body regularly, Thomas says it can further stress your body. “The nervous system’s response to trauma increases our need for both macro and micro nutrients as these are being used up at an increased rate to sustain the flight, fight, or freeze response,” she tells Well+Good. However, irregular meals send a signal to your brain that food is scarce, which disrupts blood sugar levels. The brain then releases the stress hormone cortisol which stimulates the release of glucose from its energy stores to make up for the disrupted blood sugar levels. But of course, chronic levels of cortisol has a trickle-down effect on the rest of the body, making it harder to sleep, disrupting digestion, and potentially even impacting menstruation and other crucial body systems.
Besides eating regular meals, Thomas says it’s important to get enough omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, and carbohydrates—yes, carbs! “Carbohydrates are key in maintaining optimal energy and blood sugar levels,” she says. (Stick to carbs that are low glycemic index to keep those blood sugar levels steady.) Thomas also says that the omega-3 fatty acids help nourish the brain and magnesium helps muscles relax. “Research studies have suggested that there is a link between mood disorders and omega-3 intake, namely anxiety and depression,” she says.
Thomas also says it’s important to fill up on foods with fiber and probiotics, which help support the digestive system (since the gut is sensitive to stress). If you’re experiencing stress- and trauma-related digestive distress, she recommends choosing a calming environment to eat in. She also says taking the time to really chew your food can help, because the digestive system won’t have to work as hard to break it down. “Deep breathing is a simple yet effective way to help increase calming chemical messengers that aid digestion,” Thomas adds. “Take five minutes to practice this before a meal.”
Another common result of trauma is not being able to sleep. This is why she suggests limiting drinks with caffeine, which can disrupt the sleep cycle and instead hydrating with water and non-caffeinated beverages. “The brain is around 70 percent water. Dehydration has a negative impact on cognitive and digestive function,” Thomas says.
Healing from trauma certainly isn’t easy. But taking Thomas’s tips into account can play an important role in recovering. It also ensures you’re prioritizing another important step: taking care of yourself.
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