Food and mood

God answers our (usually unprayed) prayer for daily bread with bodies for our food and minds for our food. Tomorrow we’ll look at how He provides food for our souls. But today I’d like to briefly think about the link between food and mood. Does what we eat affect how we feel? Well, obviously there are many factors that influence our emotions:

  • Our spiritual condition: The back-slidden Christian is not going to have the joy of a Christian living close to the Lord.
  • Our circumstances: Maternity wards are usually happier places than funeral homes.
  • Our health: Someone fighting terminal cancer or multiple sclerosis is not going to laugh as much as a fit and healthy 20-year-old.
  • Our upbringing: Happier homes and marriages generally produce happier children and adults.
  • Our models: It’s hard to be the life and soul of the party if we’re surrounded by sullen, pessimistic, and morose people.
  • Our nature: Some are just constitutionally more bubbly and optimistic than others
  • Our food: Our food?

Yes, food not only impacts our bodies and our minds but also our moods. In a way this should be obvious. If our food affects our thinking (see Brain Food), then it will also affect our feeling, because what we feel is hugely impacted by what we think. So food indirectly affects our moods (through our thought-processes).

But at times, food directly impacts our our moods. For example, our body’s blood/sugar levels have a big impact on our emotions. When we are hungry, when our blood/sugar levels are low, we tend to be cranky, fearful, weepy, irritable and confused. When we have eaten too much candy and ice cream, we can also have swings of emotion. This is a developing area of science, but God is allowing researchers to actually watch via PET scans the impact of certain foods upon certain parts of our brains and the subsequent emotions that are generated. Some of the early findings are:

  • Soluble fiber foods such as oatmeal, strawberries, peas slow the absorption of sugar into the blood, smoothing out mood swings.
  • Some foods like walnuts, salmon, and vitamin-D rich foods increase the number and efficiency of neurotransmitters (the brain’s messengers – see yesterday’s post)
  • Tuna, and higher fish consumption in general, has been linked to lower rates of depression, and a stabilized mood (depression is virtually unknown among Eskimos!).
  • Combining carbohydrates and proteins lifts serotonin levels, which in turn can have a calming effect upon us.
  • Lentils and broccoli are an excellent source of folate, a B-vitamin that appears to be essential for balanced moods and proper nerve function in the brain. A Harvard study showed that 38 percent of depressed women are deficient in folate.
  • Junk food contains a type of fat that does not help mood but rather raises stress levels.

Now, of course, this science can be abused. Let’s not start blaming all our bad moods on what we ate for lunch. As I said above, food is one of many factors in our feelings. If I’m feeling angry or depressed, I usually have to confess sin not change my diet.

However, we need not expect to have strong and stable emotional health if we break basic nutritional rules that God has built into our world. Unfortunately, many depressed and stressed-out people turn to Macdonalds rather than to the salad or sushi bar.

Give us this day our daily brain food

Yesterday we saw how God graciously provides sufficient and suitable food for our bodies. But do you know which organ of your body has the most dietary requirements? The brain! The brain requires 20% of our oxygen, 20% of our carbs, and 50% of available glucose to do its job. Over the last 10-15 years, research has increasingly shown the impact of diet on our intellectual capacities and abilities.

  • Studies have shown that skipping breakfast reduces cognitive performance because it deprives the brain of the nutrients, vitamins and glucose that breakfast supplies.
  • In a 2003 study, children who ate lots of sugar and fizzy drinks in their breakfast diet, performed at the same cognitive level of the average 70-year-old in attention and memory tests. Toast, on the other hand, boosted kids cognitive scores.
  • Salads are packed full of antioxidants that eliminate damaging materials from the brain.
  • Fish oil contains good fat which helps develop brains and ward of dementia by up to 3-4 years.
  • Blueberries and strawberries boost short-term memory, focus, and coordination.
  • Avocados increase oxygen and blood supply to the brain (and lower blood pressure)
  • Eating a healthy diet slows age-related memory loss. For example, eggs are rich in choline which your body uses to produce the neurotransmitter acetylcholine which helps improve memory and alertness.

Chemical cars
In that last stat, I mentioned neurotransmitters. What are they? These are chemicals that our brain uses to process our thoughts. Imagine your brain is like a road system, with many different highways, bridges and tunnels. Neurotransmitters are like the cars that carry our thoughts around the brain. There are about 14-15 different “models” or types of these neurotransmitters; and just like cars they depend on fuel. That’s where food comes in. If our diet is healthy, these “cars” multiply in number and efficiency. In other words, what we eat affects what we think.

Thus, God answers “Give us this day our daily bread” not only by giving sufficient and suitable food for physical life but also for intellectual life. How we should praise Him for providing so abundantly for all our needs, and also for matching our bodies and minds to this food. Each human brain has more switches in it than all the computers in the world. (Yes, your brain too.) What an incredibly complex organ, and yet God fuels it by what we put in our mouths at breakfast, lunch, etc. Truly we are awesomely and wonderfully made (Ps. 139:14).

Re-fuel and re-start
But, of course, as it is the most complex organ in the body, its functioning has also been affected by the fall and the divine curse on our bodies. Just like our kidneys, pancreas, heart, liver, etc., the chemistry in our brains also sometimes goes awry, sometimes affecting the way we think. Though this is still frontier medicine, doctors, dietitians, and nutritionists can help us with diet and medication to re-balance that chemistry, or we could say “re-fuel and re-start” our chemical cars. How we should praise God for this science, and also prayerfully encourage those who are trying to advance knowledge and expertise in this complex area.

This prayer also implies human responsibility. We can’t expect our minds to function well, if we are stuffing our faces with junk. And remember, God works through our minds; He does us spiritual good by imparting truth through our brains. Thus, if we are not caring for our brain by giving it sufficient and suitable fuel, that will ultimately damage our spiritual lives as well.

The least prayed (most answered) prayer

Although few daily pray “Give us this day our daily bread,” God daily answers this prayer.  He answers by graciously providing suitable and sufficient food for our bodies, for our minds, for our emotions, and for our souls. Just think for a few moments on how God provides for our bodies.

The variety of God’s provision
He made so many different tastes and textures for so many palettes and preferences. There’s something for everyone. Out of the abundant variety we can all find something to our taste.

And think about how God made different foods to meet the varied needs of our bodies. Look at food wrapping and see how even the simplest foods have a complex mixture of carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, fat, water, salt, etc.

The suitability of God’s provision

We often think of our food when we pray “Give us this day our daily bread.” However, all that food would be in vain if we did not have a functioning digestive system to process our food. God answers this prayer, therefore, not just by providing the food but also the machinery of our bodies to make the most of the food. When God made our food on creation days 1-5, He did so with a view to perfectly suiting it to the bodies He would make on day 6.

Most of us think daily about our food, but few of us ever give a thought to the incredibly complex digestive system that He daily sustains and directs. Think about it for a moment:

  • As soon as our eyes see and our nose smells food, the digestive system cranks into operation with saliva glands pumping out its lubricating oil.
  • Chemicals in our saliva (enzymes) immediately start changing carbs into sugar.
  • Our teeth and tongue start working in unison to grind it down and the tongue pushes the result to the back of the throat through a trapdoor and into our gullet (30 secs).
  • The muscles in our gullet begin to act like a toothpaste tube, squeezing the lump of food down towards the stomach, where another trapdoor automatically opens to let in the food (3 secs).
  • Acid rains down on the food to break it up (and kill any bacteria we may have ingested), while a thin layer of liquid (mucous) protects the stomach walls from being eroded (3-4 hours).
  • Once it is been dissolved into small enough bits, another valve opens and slowly lets it out into approx 20 feet of small intestine (3 hours).
  • Our liver, gall-bladder, and pancreas then squirts more chemicals to further break down the food and start separating the good from the bad. Lots of little sponges absorb the nutrients from the food and absorb them into the bloodstream.
  • The nutrient rich blood goes to the liver for processing, which filters out anything harmful and decides how many nutrients to let go to the body and how much to store.
  • What’s left then goes into the wider and drier large intestine where water is extracted and recycled back into our bodies. Microbes, bacteria continue to work on the residue which is now down to about a third of its original size..
  • The whole 25 foot journey takes about 18 hours, and 50 tons of food will pass through our digestive system in an average lifespan.

We’ve never had to think about that, have we? Most of us have never thought about this for even a moment. And yet it’s a large part of God’s daily answer to this prayer. He provides suitable food for our bodies and suitable bodies for our food. They fit so well.

The sufficiency of God’s provision
As God has promised (Ps. 145:16), there is enough food in the world for everybody. God has not come up short. He has not miscalculated. So why are there starving people? Oxfam reports that “Half the world’s food is lost as waste, and a billion people – one in every six of the world’s poorest – cannot access enough of the other half and so go hungry every day.”

“Give us this day our daily bread” is a plural, a group request. It reminds us of our responsibility to our fellow men and women. We cannot pray this prayer in the plural unless we are prepared to take action to even out the injustices of the world’s food supply. If we are not willing to do so, then lets just be honest and pray it in the singular, “Give me this day, my daily bread!”

CK2:17: Counseling one another

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This week’s guest on The Connected Kingdom is Paul Tautges. Paul is a pastor, author, counselor and father of ten(!). He has recently begun a new blog called Counseling One Another. In this podcast, the last one we’ll be recording until after the summer, Tim and I speak to Paul about the importance of setting counseling within the context of Christian discipleship (which in turn takes it out of the exclusive hands of the experts).

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The benefits of holy habits

We’ve been trying to build holy habits the past couple of days (here and here). But why? Let me give you four reasons to develop the holy habits of prayer, Bible reading, and meditation.

1. They become hard not to do
What was once hard to do can become hard not to do. Once you get into a habit of daily prayer and Bible reading, it becomes hard to break the habit, no matter how many things call us away from it. Look at Daniel; there was so much pressure on him not to pray. But it had become so customary for him that rather than being hard to do in these circumstances, it was hard not to do.

You can now put your socks on without thinking. But it was not always like that. Initially it was impossible. But as you practiced, the weak neural connections got bigger and stronger and eventually created such a strong pattern that you can now put your socks on without falling over.

When you start praying and reading your Bible or meditating it feels really hard and you think, I can’t do this for a week, never mind a lifetime. But the more you do it, the easier it becomes. 

2. They improve our feelings

You may say, “I don’t feel like praying or reading my Bible.” Do you think Daniel did? Especially that day? But actual doing, reading, praying, lifts our feelings.

Although I disagree with Jay Adams, the pioneer Biblical Counselor, on some important matters, I do agree with him that habits can regulate feelings, or at least actions can.

He often quotes the example of ironing. He says that so many women say to him, “I’m so unhappy because all the ironing is just piling up and yet I just don’t feel like doing it.” He argues that just picking a shirt and ironing it, will change the feelings and even give a sense of joy in accomplishment. And that surge of feelings motivates further ironing, thus building a virtuous cycle.

So, instead of “habitual” Bible reading or prayer emptying the joy and freedom from these spiritual activities, exactly the opposite occurs. 

3. They shape character

Just as one bad habit tends to breed more bad habits, so good habits tend to breed other good habits. Sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.

Just like Daniel, those who establish these holy habits tend to have holy characters and standout from the crowd.

“Dare to be a Daniel” was not the result of some one-off, macho, spiritual weightlifting. His courage was not some rare supreme effort that he managed to work up. Rather it was the final product of years and years of character-shaping holy habits.

4. They reveal Christ to the soul
As we go on in the book of Daniel, we see Daniel being given increasing insight into the Scriptures and the person and work of Christ. In fact the pre-incarnate Son of God comes to him at least twice and shows Himself to Daniel in overwhelming ways. 

What a blessing holy habits are. Yes, at times they may become rather mechanistic and ritualistic, no matter how hard we fight this. I’m sure Daniel had days like this too. But if we prayerfully persevere in them, as Daniel did, we will be made wise unto salvation and know Christ in deeper and deeper ways.