My health-food obsessed atheist Jewish friend has a mantra:
Your diet is the religion of your body.
I’m not quite sure what he means by that. But let’s say that he means that food is important. Amen. I would add, it is particularly important for sensitives.
During my hippie hermit phase in the countryside, after one of my many major crashes, we spent weeks, if not months, putting me on a nutritional rehabilitation programme.
His idea of that was pots full of blended beetroot, flax seed and oil (insane amounts of flax oil!), and at least five raw yolks from countryside eggs (that we walked an hour and a half to buy privately from a nearby farm) daily.
It actually worked. I won’t tell you to eat beetroot and flax seed daily though.
Eating “healthy” may not be healthy (or enough) for you, especially as a sensitive
During my voyage with nutrition, lasting now 3-4 years of in-depth study and self-experimentation, and a much longer phase of struggling with eating disorders and making mistakes, I’ve come to see that nutrition – what is the optimal, or even the good-enough food for one particular embodied being – is individual.
Unlike the food pyramids that used to be on the back side of corn flake boxes, I’ve come to see that there is no one standard “healthy” prescription for everyone.
This can be especially important for sensitives and empaths, as our nervous system and whole bodymind is often quite far from the “average” that the standard nutritional recommendations are designed for (although you might question whether some of them even work for the “average” person).
Example: I know vegans with excellent energy, and a friend who eats processed meat three times per day (if not more) and is fit and radiant. My Jewish friend can literally live on beetroot, eggs, and lentils and hike and run daily. But his best friend who was vegetarian with a less active lifestyle kept crashing until she started eating meat (and now is fine). Another friend’s great-aunt was sickly and overweight until she went on a raw food vegan diet at age 70 and regained her mental and physical vitality.
However, saying that what your body needs is individual isn’t to say it’s random.
Systems of personalised nutrition
My favourite system for making educated guesses on what might likely be good for whom is the extensive nutritional branch of Ayurveda, the traditional Indian medicine system underpinning Yoga. While there are other great approaches (both ancient and modern), this one happens to be my pet topic because it’s helped me and was my initiation into understanding the energetics, psychological and spiritual meanings of food (which before that I had regarded as simply “calorie fuel”, in a Western manner).
My other major influence is the holistic psychiatrist Kelly Brogan. I bumped into her website after my friend convinced me that it’s an obvious fact staring him blatantly in the face that my energy crashes and mental episodes (many of which I didn’t yet realise were empath episodes) were related to food. What I’d eaten on that day.
That was in 2012 and I thought he’s paranoid. Now in 2018, after my moods have stabilised largely due to dietary adjustments that are a cross-over between Ayurveda and Dr Brogan’s paleo-like brain-targeted recommendations (between which there is substantial overlap despite different genealogies), I see he was spot on.
If you experience mood instability that exacerbates the downsides of your sensitivity, food may or may not be a major driver. It’s individual. But from my personal experience I would suggest strongly that you at least investigate it before you rule it out.
Why is body-type-appropriate nutrient-dense food crucial for empaths?
For a long answer, I have written a half-fictional, half-real nutritional horror story here.
For a short answer:
- If you suffer from empath overload, it seems quite likely that your body is depleted of various nutrients. This is because the stress response and all the biochemical processes you go through every time you have intense emotions (yours or others’) actually use up nutrients. When you are emotionally stressed, as you may be, you use more. If you don’t compensate with a very sound nutritional foundation, you may experience depletion symptoms without realising that’s what they are (more below).
- Your system is sensitive. This sensitivity isn’t usually confined to the mind, but affects your psycho-physical totality. Just like your mind can respond very strongly to things which less sensitive people would just pass over, it is very likely that your digestive system does the same. In fact, the brain, skin, and gut develop from the same embryonic tissue, and even Western science is increasingly recognising the central role of the gut-brain axis – how closely the brain and gut interact – to physical and mental health. This connection was a given for millennia in Ayurvedic, traditional Chinese, and even ancient Greek medicine (maybe travelled there from the famous Arabic medics). So as a rule of thumb, sensitive nervous system => likely a sensitive gut, too (and often a sensitive skin, with allergies etc., in my case true).
- If you are energy-sensitive, it’s likely that you are also sensitive to the energetics of your food. This is a concept that doesn’t seem to exist in Western nutritional science (at least I haven’t come across it, please correct me if I’m wrong), while it’s the foundation again of many traditional nutritional systems including Indian and Chinese ones. I discuss this in more depth below. In my experience, this ancient approach to food can be great empath-fun – you get to exercise your energy skills to compose meals!
- Ultimate reason: once your body is well-nourished and (relatively) free from toxic build-up, you will gradually come to feel like you have been gifted a thick, cosy protection blanket that is always wrapped around you – negative energies affect you much less without you doing anything in the mental realm. I would say that this is the sound foundation for any kind of serious psychological or spiritual work, which may otherwise just overwhelm your system more.
- Related ultimate reason: your mind will gradually come to feel clear, sharp and calm most of the time (you may only realise the difference after the fact). With that type of mind you stand a much better chance of actually weathering emotional storms, stay cool in your contacts with the spirit world (if these guys talk to you), and mustering the necessary mindfulness and self-discipline you need to successfully get a grip on your interaction with energy or even start doing energy work.
Some basic Ayurvedic tips for empaths
Eat (mostly) what grows, not what’s made. Or make it yourself
I won’t take up space arguing why you’ll feel better eating what grows on trees or in gardens or fields or on farms than that which is made in factories. Unprocessed, home-cooked (or cooked some place that cares about quality, which can get very expensive) food is the baseline.
You won’t get away without some cooking. Well, I hate cooking, but there are workarounds to get decent, tasty, healthy meals in 15-20 minutes, or pre-cook greater quantities to eat over time. It’s doable and there are many resources on how to do that.
Pay attention to the energetics of your food
The special point to add for empaths here is that to us this may matter even more, because of the energy carried in food. Try to sense it yourself. Pick a piece of fruit freshly from a tree – for me it feels like there is a kind of sparkling, upward-rising energy in my body after I eat it. It lifts me up, gives me a lightness and readiness for action.
Then pick something that’s from a can or box and full of chemicals. Don’t pay attention to the taste in your mouth as much as the “taste” that arises in your body after you’ve consumed it. Everyone senses this differently, but that taste will in all likelihood not be a sparkling, invigorating “upward” movement. It may more feel like tiredness, sluggishness, sleepiness; or on the other hand, getting slightly over-hyped, nervous, or even hungry (some industrial foods tend to be designed to make you hungry).
Experiment with what makes you feel how – not in your mouth, but in your body in the minutes and hours after you’ve eaten it. Do that for days, weeks. Then decide how you want to feel most of the time.
(This is an Ayurvedic concept. Each food has two tastes in Ayurveda, the taste in the mouth and the post-digestive taste in the body – the way this food affects your metabolism. You can even look that up in old scriptures and modern manuals. But you can just as well just feel it, especially as an empath or sensitive.)
Eat (good) fat and protein
As they say, the brain is 60% fat (after taking out the water). Ayurveda as well as modern approaches to nutritional support for e.g. depression and autism recognise that the nervous system needs fat.
The type of fat matters – it has to be unprocessed. Good choices are (the virgin versions of) olive oil, coconut oil, flax oil (supposedly especially good for the nervous system), other oils that are directly pressed and unprocessed, avocados, ghee (the Ayurvedic panacea for nervous Vata issues) and butter (if you tolerate dairy), nuts and seeds, yolks, fish such as sardines, mackerel, herring (some fish contains toxic residues, read up on that), the fatty parts of animals that were farmed in a reasonable way (that includes lard).
That’s not exactly what’s considered “healthy” in the mainstream. But if you’re a sensitive or empath, especially if you are Ayurvedically a Vata-type, you may feel miserable – unstable, irritable, ungrounded – on a “healthy” diet of salads and crackers (unless you live in a very hot country; again, climate matters).
How much fat will depend on your body type – if you have a rather light (Vata) build (look at your bone structure, not whether you are currently overweight), you can get away literally drinking oil from a bottle on top of avocados and butter; I did that especially in winter (when the body needs more fat in northern climates) and lost weight. (That’s because we gain weight usually from the blood sugar roller-coaster caused by sugar and refined carbs.)
The trick is to use fat to add flavour instead of using sugar.
And to use fat to add calories instead of using lots of (especially refined) carbs.
I don’t want to go into the details why this works here, but the main point is that fat is processed much more slowly in the body, which is why it gives you hours and hours of stable energy – once you get used to this, you won’t need snacks – instead of the quick fly-and-crash with episodes of low blood sugar that put a sensitive nervous system on edge (here is an illustration).
Note on body types:
If you are of a medium, naturally athletic build, and have a lot of “fire” (Pitta) in you (red or blond hair, sparkling eyes, freckles, ambition and a temper) you will need less fat and it’s better if you focus on plant sources. Refreshing (including raw) food may be especially good for you.
If you are of a heavier (Kapha) build (again, look at your bones) even healthy fat may aggravate you. It will be more important to skip the sugar (learn about and use aromatic spices instead) and focus on foods with a clear, light, animating (as opposed to heavy and dulling) energy.
Take food sensitivities seriously, even if you think you don’t have any
I thought I don’t have any food sensitivities. I just had chronic, randomly appearing rashes on my hands (which the doctor said has no reason, just use cortisol). And joint pains (again, doctor said my joints look ok). And almost constant bloating (which I had since childhood, hence thought that’s just the natural shape of my belly). And various PMS symptoms (hey, isn’t that a “normal” part of inhabiting a female body? hint: no.). And apparently random mood swings throughout the day (especially in the afternoon), which were not always caused by picking up the emotions of others. And I’d wake up sometimes feeling heavy and sluggish in the mornings, with less than good breath (again, this is not how nature designed it). …
I’ve lost most of these symptoms and greatly reduced others after I realised that I have several food sensitivities (in my case dairy, nuts, and possibly gluten – still testing). I used to eat all these daily, so I didn’t notice the connection with food – the symptoms were just always there.
This changed when I visited a friend who was on a gluten and dairy free diet for her Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (bringing her antibody levels down). Since I was staying with her for three weeks, and she loves to cook while I hate to cook, I just ate exactly what she ate during that time. And – after three weeks I almost had no rashes left (which I’d had almost non-stop from age 3 to 32).
Take dietary solutions to mood and mind issues seriously
Remember the gut-brain axis. Read up on it. Test it for yourself.
Going deeper in my search for solutions to my mood and other symptoms, and also suspecting that I may have Asperger’s (in the phase when I had an interest in psychiatric labels), I bumped into the scientific literature on diet-based support for anxiety, depression (example here), and autism symptoms. I read that sensitivities to dairy and gluten are frequent in people with ASD and other mental and mood “issues”, and found additional tips apart from staying gluten and dairy free (like the above mentioned emphasis on fat and protein, and other tips I am hoping to gradually share here).
Note one thing about the population that these guidelines apply to – people with autism, those who have a tendency towards anxiety and depression, whose minds are strongly affected by negative life events bringing them into mental trouble – this is essentially a population of sensitives. For example Kelly Brogan, a psychiatrist who has developed a nutritional program for recovering from depression, recognises that in her article Heal the artists, save the world (for some reason I get oddly moved by that one).
You may not think that diffuse symptoms like the ones listed above have something to do with food. You may even be depressed or diagnosed with a mental disorder, and think it has nothing to do with food. It may not (there are various reasons always). But actually there is a huge chance that it does, and an even bigger chance that even if the root cause is somewhere else, food will help a lot. To gain strength and be able to deal with the root cause. It did for me and many others.
And, funny enough, this is also a basic tenet of many traditional medicines throughout the world (including Ayurveda) – the mind is not as independent of the body as we like to believe in the West, at least not while we are in this earthly life. A stable mind is greatly furthered by a healthy gut. And a stable bodymind makes life as an empath incomparably easier; I would say it’s indispensable for keeping your sanity.
Forage some of your food
This may sound unusual, but for me learning which wild-growing plants in my immediate environment are edible (trust me, there will be plenty wherever you live) and adding even tiny amounts of plants I have personally collected to my meals was the grounding of groundings.
Not every empath may be sensitive to this, but for me this was healing on a deep psychological level, as if a sacred connection that had been broken was being mended.
A friendly starting resource, written by an empath (she doesn’t call herself that, but what do you call someone who communicates with plants since childhood?) is The Wild Wisdom of Weeds by Katrina Blair.
Eat when the sun is highest
We are a diurnal species, meaning we are designed to be active during the day and sleep at night. So is our digestive system. Eat during the day, eat less after sunset and nothing late night. The body is designed to follow the rhythm of the sun – digest during the day, detox during the night.
Eat a big lunch, a small dinner, stop eating 2-3 hours before going to bed, and observe how you feel when you wake up after that in the morning. (Hint: fresh, light, and ready to go.)
While these are basic tenets of both Ayurveda and what’s now called “circadian medicine” valid for everyone, I feel that as empaths we may get special psychological / spiritual benefits from synchronising with the natural cycles – after a while, this may feel to your body and also spirit like mending a broken but vital connection.
Eat (only) when hungry, and (if you are eating natural foods) what you are hungry for
The first part of this is hopefully fairly obvious; don’t eat out of boredom, nervousness, pain, lack of stimulation or lack of love. In those states your food just burden your system instead of being transformed into energy (for some that means it gets stored as unnecessary fat). Having myself had an over 10-year-long history with eating disorders, I know that this is much easier said than done, and I hope to write on this in detail if there is interest.
Once you eat natural foods and have (roughly) synchronised with the cycle of the sun, your body’s hunger and craving patterns will shift. As the connection between the natural world and your inner ecosystem is re-established, you will gradually be able to trust your cravings more – your body is designed to know what’s good for it when you put it in conditions that are as close to our ancestral ways of life as possible (i.e. real food, some outdoor time, diurnal activity cycle). This is also a bigger topic that I hope to write an in-depth article on.
Pay attention to your own energy when eating
Try as much as you can to eat sitting down, in a peaceful setting, with a relaxed mind. That is the only way your food gets digested properly. Even if you eat “healthy”, eating on the run is enough to interfere with your body’s capacity to break the food down and get all the nutrients you need.
This is especially true if you have a sensitive nervous system. Movement and too much stimulation (TV, heated discussions, a nervous atmosphere, or even walking / running around) while eating makes for an agitated brain which directly makes for a dysregulated gut (think gut-brain axis) – your body is closer to “fight or flight” than “rest and digest”, which makes your physiology inefficient at getting energy even from the best food.
If you think that as long as you just stuff in the “fuel” somehow, you will get the energy – test this. Have a rested, slow meal, and check in with how your belly, body, and energy feel. Check how you digest (bloating? rummaging?). Then eat on the run, and test again.
In my experience, meditating, practicing empath techniques, seeking out insights and self-development, without working on a strong psychophysical foundation makes us a bit like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland … you run a lot but don’t get far.
By all means work on meditation, empath techniques, and spiritual development – but also consider that food is not fuel – food is information and energy. Food is one of the main routes that our bodies are connected to our ecosystem, to mother nature. That connection is sacred (even though our current lifestyle is desecrating it in unspeakable ways). From my experience, as an empath or a highly sensitive person, finding a new (or ancient) connection to the living universe through food can be the most profound grounding and rooting practice that you will ever find, and can be profoundly healing not just to the body, but also to the soul.