The Role Nutrition Plays in Your Hopefulness and Why That Matters
You’ve probably heard the expression “You are what you eat.” Eat organic whole foods, and you’ll look and feel much better than if you consume a steady diet of junk food. But that’s not all. You also are what you think.
More and more studies are revealing the many health benefits of adopting a hopeful, optimistic mindset. Here at Restoration Healthcare, we believe so strongly that hope is key to optimal health that we include it in our mission statement — “To restore hope and optimize the body’s innate ability to heal from within through the compassionate delivery of functional medicine.”
To a certain degree, people are products of their environment, and in the modern world, the environment isn’t exactly conducive to optimal health. “Advances” in agriculture and food production have packed the grocery store shelves with unhealthy and often toxic foods. The news media deliver a steady stream of doom and gloom. And people are spending more time being passively entertained and less time engaging in fulfilling and rewarding physical activities and interpersonal relationships.
No wonder why our nation is getting sicker. No wonder why obesity, chronic pain, depression, and other chronic health conditions are on the rise.
The good news is that you have the power of choice. You can change your environment. You can choose to eat healthy foods; adopt a more hopeful, optimistic mindset; and engage in more fulfilling, rewarding activities.
Recognizing the Health Benefits of Hope and Optimism
Thanks in part to 17th century philosopher René Descartes, we tend to think of the mind and body as two distinct and separate entities. As a result, modern medicine has divided illnesses into two groups — mental (psychiatric) and physical (medical). What often gets lost in this split is the fact that what goes on in the mind affects the body and vice versa.
Case in point is the effect that hope and optimism have on a person’s physical health and well-being. (Hope is a wish for a better tomorrow. Optimism is the expectation of a better tomorrow.) Numerous studies draw a connection between hope/optimism and the following health benefits:
- Hopeful people are less sensitive to pain. Psychologically, hope reduces focus on the pain. Physiologically, hope and optimism release the brain’s endorphins and enkephalins, which act like morphine to counter pain.
- Hope improves respiration and circulation, probably because it alleviates stress. When you’re fearful or feeling stressed, your body tenses up, you breathe faster but more shallowly, your heart beats faster, and your blood vessels constrict. When you’re hopeful, you’re less tense and more relaxed. You breathe more freely. Your heartbeat becomes slower and more regular. Your blood circulates more freely throughout your body. The benefits of better respiration and circulation extend far beyond the respiratory and circulatory systems to improve energy, mood, brain function, immune function, wound healing, digestion, muscle strength and flexibility, sex, and more.
- Optimism helps prevent high blood pressure. A study conducted in Finland of 616 middle-aged men with normal blood pressure showed that over a four-year period, highly pessimistic men were three times more likely to develop hypertension than those with a more optimistic outlook, even after accounting for other risk factors.
- Optimism improves immune function. One study, which tracked changes in optimism and immune response among first-year law school students, linked increases and decreases in optimism to the rise and fall of cell-mediated immunity — the proliferation of immune cells in response to pathogens (harmful bacteria or viruses). So, in the midst of a pandemic, it’s important to remain hopeful.
In terms of overall health, a large, short-term study involving 2,300 older adults showed that those who had a more positive outlook were much more likely to stay healthy and enjoy independent living than their more negative-thinking counterparts.
Feeding a Mindset of Hope and Optimism
If you have a tendency toward despair and pessimism, you can turn the tide to become more hopeful and optimistic. It’s all about choosing what you feed your mind (and body) and how you look at the world.
Here are a few ways to build hope and optimism:
- Tune out the negative. Limit your exposure to upsetting news on television, the Internet, radio, and in print, along with anything that makes you tense, such as dark movies or a streaming series and certain music. When what’s going on in the world seems overwhelming, focus on making your small world a better place.
- Look for the good in everything and everyone. Even the worst situations and the most difficult people have something positive in them.
- Break the cycle of negative self-talk. Be aware of what you’re thinking during the day and replace negative or self-defeating thoughts with positive, empowering ones. For example, instead of thinking about an overwhelming problem, consider possible solutions or opportunities.
- Associate with positive people. Negative people can drag you down and make you feel miserable. Positive people build you up and make you feel confident and happy.
- Watch comedies or stand-up comedians. Read jokes. Hang out with funny and fun-loving people. Laughter stimulates the vagus nerve, which plays a key role in regulating the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls unconscious bodily functions, including heart rate, digestion, breathing, and sweating.
- Enjoy yourself. Discover what makes you happy and do it. This includes work, relationships, and free time.
- Put your body in motion. As the world becomes more sedentary, get more active. This doesn’t necessarily require creating a strenuous workout routine. Any physical activity will do, usually outside, such as gardening, biking, or wandering around town.
- Engage with others in person. Leave your smart phone at home and scale back on social media. Do something instead with a friend, colleague, or family member. Digital communication may result in more superficial relationships. Face-to-face interactions create deeper connections. Create a healthy balance between the two.
- Expand Your Selection of Healthy Foods. As consumers, we often act like victims with no control over what grocery stores stock and restaurants serve. But they’re only stocking and serving what people buy. Every time we pay for our groceries and our meals out, we’re casting a vote. If we truly want safer, more nutritious foods, we need to request and vote for good foods and vote against those that are killing us. We have more power than we realize.
To expand your healthy food options, take action. Here are some suggestions:
- Start your own garden, or secure space in the growing number of community gardens that are popping up across the country.
- Plant your own herbs.
- Start growing one food item on your windowsill, such as mint or sprouts.
- Boycott one toxic food item — for example, stop buying soda, fried snacks, or foods with artificial flavors or colors, corn syrup, sucralose, vegetable oil, corn oil, soybean oil, caramel color, gluten, soy, or shortening. Or, more simply, buy only whole foods. You can choose to diminish your participation in a food system that’s making us sick.
- Partner with a friend, neighbor, or family member and commit to making just a few changes in the foods you buy. Every week, you and your partner can prepare one homemade, organic, non-GMO (genetically modified organism) food to share. We heal in community, so team up with others to start your own mini food advocacy group.
You don’t need to create a national or international movement to affect change. It doesn’t have to be daunting, and it doesn’t have to feel like a revolution. You can start with small steps to reclaim your right to positive thoughts and the right to consume only healthy foods and beverages.
Disclaimer: The information in this blog post about hopefulness is provided for general informational purposes only and may not reflect current medical thinking or practices. No information contained in this post should be construed as medical advice from the medical staff at Restoration Healthcare, Inc., nor is this post intended to be a substitute for medical counsel on any subject matter. No reader of this post should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this post without seeking the appropriate medical advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a licensed medical professional in the recipient’s state, country or other appropriate licensing jurisdiction.