WHEN FOLLOWING A SPECIFIC DIET CAUSES STRESS
Stress, within reason, is a healthful and beneficial part of being human. It pushes the body to being better (see our Exercise Page for how hormetic stressors can help us to grow and to thrive).
Stress in excess however, either in intensity or duration, is toxic to the body. It places our nervous system into a state of fight-flight-or-freeze. This is a state where one branch of our autonomic nervous system known as the sympathetic nervous system takes over, driving down its counterbalance, the parasympathetic nervous system.
Chemically, the result of this sympathetic dominance is surges of cortisol and adrenaline – otherwise known as stress hormones. The ‘rest-and-digest’ function of the parasympathetic nervous system becomes a distant memory as blood is diverted to the heart and leg muscles and away from the digestive tract. Effectively, the presence of cortisol and adrenaline in the bloodstream are indicators that the body is under attack and this changes the priorities of the body, altering the functioning of everything within us. We ready ourselves to fight.
This is a perfect survival mechanism, a system optimised to protect itself from danger. It is also the response that always occurs when the body is placed into a state of stress – for any reason, real or perceived.
The Paleo diet is based on the whole premise that certain proteins, chemicals and toxins present a stress to the body which pushes it into the sympathetic stress state detailed above. The net effect of this is temporary immunosuppression, lack of nutrient absorption and down-regulation of all of the hormones not involved in the stress response cascade.
Paleo principles remove the stress and endorse practices which support relaxation, restoration and digestion.
Psychological stress is just as powerful as poorly tolerated nutritional ingredients, poisons, toxic compounds or inflammatory substances. It’s more so, actually – because as opposed to eating a few times per day, you carry your psyche with you everywhere.
It doesn’t matter how many times we state that Paleo principles and templates are just backdrops of understanding from which you are empowered to make nutritional and lifestyle decisions, there will always be individuals who will hear about a Paleo approach and attempt to follow the recommendations within it to the letter. This is especially true for those who approach Paleo with the hope of remedying real physical illness and distress.
And yet, in truth (and whilst we wish it wasn’t the case), living and eating according to any form of Paleo principles is actually going against the grain in modern societies. This means that it’s hard. It is the effortful choice, it is the difficult option – and it is not the normal. It is also likely to be completely unnatural and new to you when you begin.
For this reason, the templates can be experienced as rule books and regimented instructions which MUST be followed and adhered to.
You will hear this referred to by some of the Paleo Leaders as an attempt at ‘Perfect Paleo’…
Perfect Paleo is practically impossible – and it is incredibly stressful and draining.
The stress and drain of trying to be ‘Perfect’ doesn’t remove stressors, it piles MORE stressors into the body, completely negating the purpose of choosing Paleo lifestyle approaches in the first place.
The mere fact that we have a Grey Area Foods Page and a Reintroduction Page on this website is because Paleo principles are a starting point, not a restrictive prescription for life. There really are grey areas and areas of uncertainty. There really isn’t, in our opinion, any such thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods – only foods that are more suited to our bodies and not.
And whilst we all may start from the same experimental baseline of Paleo – where we all end up should be a personalised nutritional landscape that is as broad as possible whilst catering to our utmost health aspirations… whatever they are for us.
And speaking of ‘health aspirations’, this whole website is founded on the basis that somewhere we all want to be healthy. And yet, this doesn’t mean ‘uber-healthy’, absolutely never doing anything vaguely on the ‘unhealthy’ spectrum (think missing a bit of sleep, drinking some alcohol, eating some sugar on occasion).
The emotional, social and psychological component to heath is often overlooked in the discussion of all the practical elements of wellbeing. Breaking this down to biology, we experience pleasure in response to ‘good things’ by a biochemical release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in our brain.
Known as the ‘reward-seeking’ neurotransmitter, this biological reality is responsible for our survival as a human race, not our downfall. We were built to seek out that which lights up our dopamine receptors because those experiences/foodstuffs were advantageous.
In truth, part of the science behind any nutritional regimen which limits novel, processed foods is attempting to ‘reset’ your receptivity to the stimulation of these rewarding behaviours. A diet and life filled with endless mini-releases of dopamine will eventually create a desensitisation, requiring more and more of the original substance to achieve the same result. We lose the ability to discern each food or drink’s impact on our body and we end up bombarding our receptors with an endless stream of substances which alter our innate biological sensitivity.
A restrictive dietary regimen, and a big part of the ethos behind Modern Paleo, is about removing the chemical and artificially enhanced substances which can ‘hijack’ our pleasure and reward systems, and our biology as a whole. In so doing, by spending a small amount of time without this stimuli, we can re-sensitise our body to these processes and foodstuffs.
From here, however, the entire point is to re-engage with some (not necessarily all) of the ‘chemical hijacker’ foods – by which we mean things like alcohol and sugar – and your experience of them will be one in which you truly feel their effect on your biology and sense of wellbeing.
If you embark upon Paleo believing that the rest of your life is supposed to be lived like a ‘monk’, never experiencing things that you enjoy, then you have missed the point. The essence of doing anything such as Paleo is that you regain a relationship with your body which allows you to truly understand how each food and drink (or experience) affects you – and therefore whether you want to engage with it in your life going forward.
So back to when your diet becomes a stressor:
You may be avoiding all dopamine activations because ANYTHING not ‘Paleo’ does not touch your lips, even after months of ‘being Paleo’, or you may be socially isolating yourself because you feel you can’t go out with friends and still ‘be Paleo’, either through embarrassment or restaurant selection. You may just feel that all of this is too hard, doesn’t fit with the demands of your life and makes being you more difficult.
This is a short road to stress, dissatisfaction and feelings of social isolation: all key precursors to negative health outcomes.
So if you feel stressed by the whole idea of ‘keeping up’ Paleo living, there are two things you must do. If the practical side of it is wearing you down – seek help! Many have gone before you and found hacks and ways to make this lifestyle work for them.
But if it’s the perfectionist streak inside you that feels that you must be Paleo in order to be a ‘good person’ then you must ask the ‘why’ behind your choices.
If you choose not to eat a certain food because, ‘I feel better when I don’t eat x‘ or because ‘x doesn’t make me feel good’ then this is a good sign. It is an indication that your choices, even if they limit your social experiences, are emanating from a place of conviction that you must do what makes you feel good.
If, however, you are feeling weighed down by an obligation to keep up your Paleo identity for fear of ‘failing’ then we encourage you to look more deeply at your motivations for following Paleo in the first place. You are doing this to create health, not to pile on anxiety or to demonstrate anything about your identity, your community or your ideals.
If you are struggling to know how to do Paleo without it being stressful – or if you’re worried that your approach and attitude going into Paleo are possibly not aligned to your best interests – do reach out to us. We are always delighted to help you find a way to be healthy, whether than includes a Paleo regimen or not…
TRYING TO FIX YOURSELF THROUGH PALEO, WITHOUT ADDRESSING YOUR RELATIONSHIP TO YOURSELF
Paleo cannot work magic. The dietary approach of Paleo merely provides the raw ingredients for a dietary style which can be most nourishing to our human body.
If you are approaching Paleo as yet another attempt at a diet to control your body, regulate your weight or solve behavioural difficulties you have around food such as cravings and bingeing, then the ‘tool’ of the Paleo diet is doomed to fail.
In order to absorb nutrition through your digestive tract, you have to be in a space to receive. It sounds esoteric but, yet again, this is incredibly biological. Parasympathetic nervous system activity is required for digestion and assimilation of nutrients – and activating the parasympathetic branch of your autonomic nervous system is entirely do with setting the stage for you to receive.
Whilst it is certainly not true of everyone, and we accept that this is a generalisation, attempts to ‘control’ weight, shape, size and behaviour are normally borne out of states of conflict within our own selves. At odds with the reflection we see in the mirror our choices to embark on ever-more extreme nutritional and exercise regimens reflect our lack of self-love and self-respect.
When attempted from this perspective, every diet is doomed to falter and fail at some point. If you consume every mouthful fearful of food, perceiving your choices as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based on an arbitrary measure of being ‘healthy’ then the entire experience of eating is dominated by stress.
And you can just read any of the sections above to understand how negative and counter to your health objectives – especially your weight loss objectives – living in a state of anxiety and stress can be.
So on the surface, Paleo would seem as if it plays exactly into this paradigm of ranking food on a spectrum of being ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – and, for some, it can certainly be used as such.
Which is why we would say that if your mindset and attitude going into Paleo is that you are trying this as an attempt to finally control your body and beat it into submission (and a weight that you (mentally) are happy with) you must seek some assistance with your journey.
Paleo isn’t supposed to be another standard to which you must aspire in order to demonstrate that you are healthy. It is a way of eating that helps you feel vibrant and thriving within your human physiology – not something to do because you hate your body and you’d like it to be smaller, leaner, tighter, stronger etc. (fill in the blank…)
You will read on our site that we have had reservations about putting some of this material out there because we know that there are many individuals who are using control of food as a tool to manage their stress around life, or as a projection for their fears and past traumas.
Whilst we do believe that following a nutrient-dense, whole-food diet is a healthy step for everyone, we do not believe that dietary manipulations are a replacement for dealing with the emotional and psychological facets of what it means to be human and face the challenges of life.
We also do not believe that your self-worth should be based on your behaviour around food or the shape and weight of your body.
We also do not believe that your character, personality, worth and merit should be based on the health of your body or your aspirations to health.
So why put Paleo out there at all?
Because eating in a way that combines high-nutrient foods with a lack of foods which create inflammation is like giving human bodies the ultimate blank slate. For those who have arrived at a state of biochemical, metabolic or immunological challenge – Paleo is like life’s great reset button that can help you get back on your feet and develop a relationship with your body that is built on clear signals, effective function and balanced energy and nervous systems.
Ultimately, therefore, at Paleo in the UK we believe that the tools of a Paleo or Autoimmune Paleo approach are there to help us to foster a deeper connection to our bodies – not to continue the fights we may have had with them.
Using these diets we build understanding and awareness of the complexities of our own human form – and how to nourish and treat ourselves with respect, compassion, nourishment and love.
That’s why we’ve built this resource and our website – not to lecture on how to eat, but to empower you to discover your body’s own language and the way it truly responds to the experiences you live through and the foods you choose to eat.
If you can approach your Paleo with the mindset that it is a self-experiment which you are privileged to attempt then ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘success’ or ‘failure’ and ‘come on just a few more pounds and we’ll be happy’ ceases to exist.
Perhaps this is a hunter-gatherer mindset, perhaps not. But the desire for self-awareness and the enthusiasm for just trying things out are always, we believe, the absolute best attitudes with which to approach life.