Can the thoughts in your head and what’s on your fork impact both your mood and cognition?
That was the question explored during the recent Mind, Mood & Food conference I attended at Esalen. This was my first Center for Mind-Body Medicine conference and my first time at the famous institute in northern California. It was an unforgettable week and a very rich experience. Here are some highlights and takeaways for your mind and mood!
What is the Center for Mind-Body Medicine?
The Center for Mind-Body Medicine is considered the most effective evidence-based program for healing both personal and large-scale psychological trauma and stress. Using a variety of techniques, they marry the world’s healing traditions with modern medicine in a train-the-trainer model. Their programs have helped whole populations of people to heal, from as far away as Gaza, Kosovo, Israel, and Haiti, as well as at home, working with military personnel, Native American communities, hurricane survivors, and both American children and adults with stress-related conditions or chronic disease.
The Esalen Institute
Set on the dramatic convergence of mountains and ocean, that is the Big Sur coastline, Esalen is stunning to the senses and spirit. It is believed that Esalen, as it is commonly referred to, was home to the Esselen, a Native American tribe, perhaps as early as 2600 BCE. Maybe that is why Esalen is considered (according to the Institute’s website) both ‘a noun and a verb, a seat of energy…’ You feel Esalen.
Today, Esalen is a retreat center and ‘intentional community’ with rich intellectual history. Founded in the 60’s it played a key role in the Human Potential Movement, frequented by attendees and lecturers ranging from Aldous Huxley, Ansel Adams, Buckminster Fuller, Timothy Leary, Nadeau, Linus Pauling, Carl Rogers, Virginia Satir, B.F Skinner and Hunter S. Thompson to Ansel Adams and Joan Baez who came for the cliff-side hot springs and massage, the experiential lectures, or just to celebrate after Woodstock.
Esalen has a reputation. Not knowing what to expect, I read Esalen’s visitor Frequently Asked Questions where I learned that there was no cell service and limited WiFi access. Here are some other highlights.
- Must I get naked?
- Can I bring my stash?
- Is Esalen a Nudist colony?
Being at Esalen
Esalen was the perfect setting for this training. Most of us were not thrilled about going mostly tech-free. By the end of the week, we weren’t missing it. It was incredibly refreshing never to see a person walking with their head down, into their phone. And at meals, no laptops, just conversation, and connection. Did an absence of electromagnetic fields for a week have an impact? Hard to say. But, going no (or low) tech makes a lot of sense when the focus is on mindfulness in a setting of exquisite natural beauty.
Two words: Top. Notch.
The Mind Mood and Food training program’s architect is Kathie Swift, Food As Medicine Education Director for the Center. Attendees ranged from MDs, integrative psychiatrists, RDs and nutritionists to health coaches and social workers. Faculty included some of the best in the functional medicine industry who somehow managed to deliver presentations which resonated in impactful ways across the very diverse audience. Following are a sample of the topics:
- Cynthia Geyer, MD on brain physiology and the neurobiology of behavior, addiction, and sleep
- Mark Hyman, MD on how nutrition affects biology
- James S. Gordon, MD on Mind-Body Medicine and the brain, the power of mindfulness, meditation and the imagery which we were taught and practiced throughout the training
- Kathie Swift, MS, RDN on therapeutic diets, healing foods and supplements for mind & mood
- Amy Shinal, MSW, LCSW on the healing power of nature
- Chef Catherine McConkie, NC’s brain nourishment cooking demonstrations
Here a few takeaways which are easy to implement (and ponder!) for better mind and mood.
What’s Good (and Bad) for the Gut is Good (and Bad) for the Brain.
You may have heard of the blood-brain-barrier. You may have also heard about the leaky gut concept. There is overlap. Research shows parallels between the barriers of the gut and the brain leading to the premise that if you have a leaky gut, you may also have a leaky blood-brain barrier. Therefore, an inflamed gut may also indicate an inflamed brain. So, consider gut health an integral part of mind or mood interventions. Nourish your gut and feed the ‘good’ microbes with a whole foods diet, including prebiotic fiber and probiotics. Keep in mind, that when you eat plant fiber, you’re feeding the beneficial microbes. Whereas, a diet of processed foods, sweeteners and refined grains feeds the ‘unhealthy’ bacteria and, along with potentially allergenic foods, likely causes inflammation.
What’s Good (and Bad) for the Heart is Good (and Bad) for the Brain.
How so? Our two most vital organs are highly vascularized. So, the health of our blood vessels will directly impact the health of our heart as well as our brain -and potential for Alzheimer’s and depression.
Multiple studies, including the PREDIMED study, show that the Mediterranean diet is the best prescription we have for brain health. This plant-centric, low-glycemic way of eating (limited grains and sugars to keep blood sugar even) has shown improvements in memory, lower depression and higher preserved brain mass. In particular, nuts, olive oil, and berries are top brain foods. Further, the Mediterranean diet has been shown to reduce chronic disease overall. So, when you go Mediterranean, you really can’t go wrong!
Have you ever been driving and realized that you don’t remember the last few miles? You went on auto-pilot. We often do the same thing with food and drink. The plate or glass gets filled, then it’s not -and we don’t really remember the experience of consuming it.
Mindful eating, no tech, no multi-tasking, actually focusing on the food with all senses, may be one of the more simplistic, yet both challenging and impactful changes we can make towards better digestion and overall health. Eating with sensory awareness helps stimulate the digestive process, signaling the cascade of digestive juices and enzymes leading to better digestion and nutrient assimilation. Eating with focus lends itself to higher satisfaction and satiety.
The self-cleaning brain.
We have what is called a glymphatic system which clears out excess amyloid from your brain. Amyloid is not dangerous on its own, only when it accumulates and folds into beta sheets, a serious risk factor for Alzheimer’s Disease. But for this system to work properly, we must be hydrated and (this is important) it only works when we are asleep. So, drink your water and get your Zzzzzs!
Miracle-Gro for the Brain.
Contrary to what we previously believed, our brain can and does create new neurons in a process called neurogenesis. A naturally occurring growth hormone, Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) promotes this process. If there is a silver bullet for brain health, it is BDNF which is associated with increased intelligence, memory, productivity and positive mood. BDNF is so impactful that it has been referred to as “Miracle-Gro for the Brain.” More, please! Luckily, it’s easy to significantly increase BDNF -exercise! In fact, in a 44-year study, those with the highest midlife fitness had an 88% lower risk of later dementia! So, get moving!
In summary, this was a very enriching week, personally and professionally. I not only have a much deeper understanding of the science of brain health but also the power of the mind to heal the body. I’ve been integrating these mindfulness techniques at home (more meditation=better sleep) and plan to integrate my learnings into future posts and recipes.
Thank you to the intensely dedicated CMBM faculty for sharing their rich knowledge in such a heartfelt way.
- Neurology Apr 2018
- Neurology Oct 21 2015
- Alzheimers Dement July 15 2015
- BMC Medicine 2015;13:215
- Nutr Metab 2017;14:24
- Clin Inter Aging 2016;11:744-754
- Top Stroke Rehabil 2018;25(1):1-5 Walking raises BDNF
- Neurology, published online March 14, 2018 doi:10.1012/WNL.0000000000005290.
- JAMA 2017;317(9):896-898
Have you had a positive health impact from mindfulness, meditation, guided imagery or targetted nutritional brain support? Please leave a comment below!