I’m not a chemist. So this can’t be a chemistry class. But what I understand is what your body understands. Food is food. When we see it, smell it, taste it...we know what to do with it. The raw power of our endocrine system and its link to the outside world far exceeds that of our little logical brain and what it decides we will prepare for this evening’s supper. In all areas of our life this fact rears its head, like when we jump if someone sneaks up on us, even though thankfully they’re usually trying to wind us up instead of steal our satchel, but our body knows no different, and this is the case with eating too.
If we chose to eat blindfolded every night we’d end up with a greatly suppressed ability to extract the nutrients from our foods - our body uses sensory triggers to understand when its about to be fed a meal. Sight and smell are the two initial stimuli that tell our body what’s on the menu, and it wakes up a host of digestive processes, stimulating saliva production, and alerting your entire alimentary canal to the impending meal. So you can imagine how eating whilst reading an email, or having a conversation about mortgage payments MIGHT not be the best plan for making the most of the food in front of you. Indeed, studies back this up, demonstrating a difference of around 70% in the production of digestive juices depending on the engagement of the cephalic phase. The truth is our modern lives in so many ways are robbing us of the ability to use our senses to assess, reap the rewards from and sidestep the dangers in our environment.
We’re basically losing our connection to most of our internal signalling processes, what we traditionally refer to as our gut instinct. Which is funny because it’s a crucial nerve pathway that starts and ends in our gut that is our route back to rediscovering and listening to what our body is trying to tell us, so that we can begin to give ourselves more of what we need.
This magical pathway known as the vagus nerve, is the epicentre of our “gut/brain connection”. It’s a two way street that runs from our brain down to our gut, and wraps itself around most of our vital organs including our heart and lungs on the way there. The traditional perspective on the vagal nerve was that it helped regulate digestive processes such as the peristaltic rhythm which is that wave motion that gets our food from top to bottom and puts a decent shape on it...if the vagal nerve is being looked after that is.
The vagal nerve is truly a magical thing however, and as well as this vital role in digestion, it controls heart rate, breathing, and EVEN whether we make good eye contact while chatting to folk. Nurture your vagal nerve and you should feel yourself settling down easier to sleep in the evenings, getting more out of your food, regulating and protecting your heart rate and even having a positive effect on your relationships, helping you see eye to eye (literally) with your kin folk.
Toning your vagus nerve is something you’ll read lots about on the web - everything from humming, to cold water immersion helps to stimulate and tone the vagal nerve pathway, but what I’m keen to outline here is just how related stress is to the disconnection from the rhythms of our internal organs. When we’re in sympathetic nervous system mode, when we’re “doing” our day, our vagus nerve suffers. This would be fine if we were taking moments throughout the day to check in with conscious breath...or even just conscious disconnection from our iphone!! But on a mass scale this isn’t happening, and over time our vagal nerve pattern becomes disrupted, impacting all those body systems I mentioned above, and serving to degrade your overall physical and emotional health in a profound and fundamental way.
When we start to tune back into our gut instinct, and listen to what our digestion system has to tell us about how our nervous system is feeling, we gain a real benefit from opening this communication up. Instead of force feeding ourselves at regular times with foods that we are told provide a balanced diet, we can begin to wake up to what our best times are for eating, and what sort of foods suit us our systems at any time. For instance, lots of folk I speak to wake up without any sort of hunger, but they still eat breakfast because they feel they should, it’s traditionally considered a healthy start to the day - “Eat breakfast like a king”...etc. But if you eat when you’re not hungry your body just doesn’t produce the enzymes to get the most out of your meal, and your body ends up wasting a lot of the value of the meal.
The jury has been out for all time, discussing the role that fasting plays in an everyday scenario (not one in which you’re lying in a hammock on a retreat in the middle of the pacific ocean), and the idea of fasting is not to everyone’s taste. Certainly anything over a 24 hour period can have downsides if the person fasting is an initiate without experience of shorter fasting intervals. But most people who engage in fasting begin to see enhancement in their energy levels instead of the decline we might expect from not consuming vital “calories”.
As well as a host of other potential benefits in terms of blood sugar regulation, protection of cells from damage, it’s just interesting to see what messages this gives us. If there’s any demonstrable benefit from fasting then we need to really consider that if our body is adapted to that process which means that we’ve evolved with the practice as a species over literally thousands of generations, then why do we think eating 3 square meals each day should be adopted as a more sensible or health oriented practice, considering that as feeding pattern it’s only existed for around 100 years??
One thing is for certain, when it comes to digestion, you can take this horse to water but you CAN NOT make it drink against its will. And it’s the same when it comes to the forms of nutrients that your consuming. Your body understands food better than any human in a lab coat ever can, and as we’ve started stuffing foods into pill form, we’ve also lost crucial components that our body checks for at the gate of absorption and just like Gandalf The Grey Wizard, when he says “You Shall Not Pass!!”, the bridge across our gut wall, through our blood stream and into our cells is closely guarded and if the nutrients that our body perceives aren’t up to scratch then the door stays shut and those pricey (or more likely budget) pills just get flushed down the loo.
One of the problems with nutritional science is that even though we say we’ve recreated vitamin C that’s identical to the form found in nature, it’s not really the whole truth. Ascorbic acid is a single compound, whereas in nature what we know as Vitamin C comes as a complex of elements bound together in such a way that our body is able to use it more efficiently, and the effect of the nutrient in our system stays active far longer, providing life for our cells in a more sustainable manner. Ascorbic acid may enter and exit our blood stream in 2-4 hours, while vitamin C in it’s food state may stick around to do work for up to 12 or even 14 hours!!
And as narrow as they can be in the production department, synthetic nutrients and the manufacturers who produce them, lean on soundbyte nutrition to support their sales. Whilst there’s a strong argument for vitamin C’s effect on your immune system, it’s a very limiting perspective to reduce its relevance to those suffering with the sniffles. From bone health, to our nervous system, vitamin C competes strongly for the label of most undersold nutrient in terms of its range of application. Snapping at its heels though is folic acid.
Folic acid, or folate, both in formulation and education has been narrowed to within an inch of its life. The recommendation of use during pregnancy to reduce the occurrence of neural tube defects such as spina bifida. But why and how does folate do such powerful work? Well it’s because folate is vital for the healthy replication of DNA and RNA. Through a process more vital to life than most, folate acts as a “methyl donor” along with vitamin B12 and other nutrients. Methylation reactions occur (roughly a billion times each second!!) during cell replication and involves the recruitment of a protein to assist in gene expression and detoxification….possibly that sounds like gobbledygook to you, but what’s important to take away from this is that we all are in a constant state of cell division, especially in our earlier years, but throughout our lives the process continues, although it slows, and regulating this process, is crucial to ensuring our bodies age in a healthy manner.
Our body is so adept at recognising real food that it sees folic acid (synthetic folate) coming a mile off, and it doesn’t let much of the synthetic form through the gaps, leaving excess “monoglutamate” folic acid floating around our blood stream unused, where it can cause havoc, much like excess synthetic calcium - the studies that have demonstrated damaging effects from supplementation at high doses are always linked to these synthetic sources so it’s crucial for this reason too, that we start working back towards natural source nutrient supplements, and food itself, in order to let our bodies live as nature intended. In food form, folate is found in “polyglutamate” form, which means that it takes taken up only if needed by the body so excess doesn’t hang around in our bloodstream doing mischief, and also crucially synthetic folic acid, such as that found “fortifying” our bread flour has to be unlocked in 3 steps by your body before it’s rendered useful, where as the natural stuff just goes in and gets used without delays and obstructions.
And so we see there’s just so much more to nutrition than soundbytes - substances such as folic acid are relevant and even essential throughout our lifetime, not just for a narrow window and for a single purpose, and forms of nutrients that our body finds in nature necessarily take much less energy from our body in order to make use of them. All that remains is for us to tune back into our true nature, and start to recognise that 60 years of science labs will never beat 2.5million years of human redesign and evolution.
The case may be that in addition to a nutritious and varied diet additonal support may be needed especially for those under extra stress or pressure or simply those bracing themselves going into the colder months. In which case, supplements mentioned in this article may be purchased in-store at The Hopsack or at our online website;
Please consult with your doctor before taking supplements or changing your diet, especially if you are taking any medications or have a medical condition. Some supplements and medications can have some suprising and negative interactions.