T he Zohar dedicates quite a few words to the importance of food and our consciousness of what we are eating. On Shabbat there are blessings for bread, blessings for wine, and another blessing once the meal is finished. There are prayers to be said while washing our hands before meals. On a spiritual level food contains sparks of Light and blessing the food ensures that we receive that spiritual nourishment in addition to the physical energy that food provides. In this way food becomes a sacred tool for our spiritual transformation.
Kabbalists encourage us to look at food as spiritual fuel, to use the energy we get from our food to share with others. Most of us try to eat healthily and make good choices about what we feed our bodies, but it’s easy to forget in the day to day just how much what we eat affects us, both spiritually and physically. A relatively new field of science is looking into the effects that food has on our physical bodies and has discovered that our digestive systems are sentient, making decisions and responding to what we eat in radically different and measurable ways.
At first it may seem shocking to think that two decision-making entities exist within your body, but actually, the gut is referred to as the mini-brain or the ENS (enteric nervous system). Your brain isn’t the only organ that uses neurons to send information to other cells in your body; your gut sends messages with its own set of neurons and is the only organ that functions independently from the brain. This isn’t to say that the two don’t talk, they do! In fact, depending on what is going on in your ENS, which is completely responsive to what you are eating, it sends signals to your brain triggering feelings of anxiety, depression, and stress. Conversely, we all know the pleasant contentment and drowsiness we feel after a fine meal. Studies have long shown the correlation of higher testing scores in children who ate a nutritious breakfast, meaning the ENS affects memory and learning.
Your gut even produces neurotransmitters, like serotonin, identical to those produced in your brain. Planning the menu for a fundraising gala? Serve quiche. Eggs are rich in tryptophan, which is an amino acid that is converted into serotonin. Study participants were fed then asked to donate money. Those that ate eggs donated twice as much as participants who had an egg-free meal.
Comfort foods really are comforting. When the body undergoes stress, ingesting fatty acids, like those found in chocolate and mac & cheese, reduce feelings of sadness. MRI scans revealed more blood flow to the emotional parts of the brain after eating comfort food. When we are under stress we want the peanut butter, the energy dense food that will give us that infusion of fatty-acid. This explains why our will power seems to crumble in the face of stress, making it far harder to choose the healthy apple over the cupcake with frosting and sprinkles.
Just when you are becoming comfortable with the thought of your gut making choices, here’s a loop: 100 trillion bacteria live in your gut and they aren’t just along for the ride. The gut biome is the bridge between diet and DNA. Our genes are encoded with all kinds of predispositions, but the flora influences how those genetic tendencies function. In fact, our brain and our gut bacteria have been communicating since our infancy, influencing our responses to fear, memory, and anxiety.
So, should we trust our gut? I would posit that it may depend on what you’ve been eating! The gut can’t reason, but French neuroscientists have found that when we guess at something and give an incorrect answer our gut may know better. If there is a disagreement between the brain and the gut, participants in the study started to sweat — suggesting that the gut knew the answer was wrong! We should certainly listen to our gut, but in the end rational decision-making is entirely the domain of the brain sitting on your shoulders.
THOUGHT INTO ACTION
Food is undoubtedly one of the greatest pleasures of our physical beings and we spend a great deal of time and energy in the obtaining and eating of it. Just think how much of our thoughts are dedicated to the (usually) three meals we eat every single day. We really are what we eat. Think about what you are putting in your body and now think about the feelings you experience after you eat. Notice anything interesting?