When a loved one dies, we are plunged into a state of grief, which can cause a huge stress response in our bodies. During this time, as we deal with relentless exhaustion, overwhelm and sadness, food often becomes an emotional crutch and sensible dietary choices slip down our list of priorities. Processed food and takeaways commonly become our go-to meal choices, alcohol becomes a welcome numbing agent and before long, unhealthy habits have unconsciously seeped into our daily lives.
In a recent podcast, I caught up with Sabine Horner, a registered nutritionist and herself a widow, who shared with me her insights on the link between grief and nutrition, the importance of self-love during our bereavement journeys and how what we put into our bodies can either help or hinder our recovery.
This blog will examine these ideas in more detail, looking specifically at the grief-gut connection, as well as the various types of food those grieving should try and eat to support their physical and emotional wellbeing as well as those they should aim to avoid. It will identify the ways people can actively calm their nervous systems and explore the importance of self-care in the healing process.
Grief has conventionally focused on the emotional response to the loss of a loved one and often, supporting someone through bereavement centres on taking care of a person’s emotional health. And whilst this is of course a fundamental part of the healing process, a person’s physical health and more specifically their gut health is as important, for there is a strong relationship between grief and the gut.
Humans have an ancient threat response – known as the stress response, or more commonly ‘fight-flight freeze’. It is a biological response to an encountered threat. During occasions of acute stress, such a response is important for survival. As a person reacts to the threat (fight or flight), blood is diverted away from non-essential organs such as the stomach and goes to their heart, lungs and limbs enabling them to escape from danger. As the stress response then subsides, their body assumes its relaxed state and blood begins to return to other parts of the body, including the digestive system.
However, during grief, a person’s stress response is prolonged; they can grieve for months or even years. Consequently, their bodies don’t return to a resting state and instead can enter a state of chronic stress. This not only causes inflammation around the body, but also means digestion slows and becomes more disrupted, as blood is diverted away from the digestive system to more critical organs.
As such, during grief, at a time when a person’s digestive strength is compromised, it is important that they carefully consider what they are putting into their bodies. Food that is harder, requires more energy to digest, or that may cause gastro-intestinal problems should be avoided and replaced with food that is kinder to their stomach.
Some carbohydrates such as white bread, white pasta and white rice can prove hugely comforting during grief. After all, they are tasty, filling and quick to prepare. However, sandwiches or pasta dishes although a convenient go-to staple when exhausted and lacking motivation, can turn into a gooey mass that clogs up the digestive system and so are best avoided, when grieving. Being heavily processed and refined, they also contain little nutritional value and so where possible nutritional whole-grain substitutes such as quinoa, buckwheat noodles and brown basmati rice should be explored. Sourdough bread (spelt sourdough if possible) is also a great alternative to standard white bread, as the pre-digested flour used to make the bread is kinder on the stomach and requires less energy to process.
Gut bacteria is essential for gut health, as it keeps the lining of the stomach intact. When the lining leaks, toxins and bacterial waste can enter the bloodstream, which can lead to the development of food intolerances, allergies and autoimmune diseases – ultimately overburdening a person’s immune system. Periods of stress, such as grief, can have a detrimental impact on the level of good gut bacteria in the stomach and can lead to a weakening of the stomach lining, making it more susceptible to toxins. Fibre not only helps keep people fuller for longer and satisfies sweet cravings that are common during grief, but it is also vital in maintaining a person’s good gut bacteria, and by extension, their gut wall.
There are two distinct types of fibre: insoluble and soluble. Soluble fibre is gel like and readily absorbed in water. Common sources of soluble fibre include black and lima beans, flax seeds, avocados, peas, sweet potatoes, broccoli, oats and barley. Insoluble fibre is fibre the body doesn’t want to digest and helps with waste elimination. It is present in many vegetables and fruit including cauliflower, potatoes, berries, apples, celery, cucumber and courgettes.
During grief, the thought of cooking a meal with lots of ingredients and a lengthy preparation time can feel unmanageable. In fact, for those experiencing grief, it can feel as if they have regressed to being a baby – with little independence and limited ability to manage the process of chewing and swallowing food. However, there are still ways people can include fibre in their diet – quickly and easily. Mashed or stewed apple can make a quick, nutritious breakfast. Adding flaxseeds to a berry smoothie is also a speedy, soothing, hassle free way of consuming fibre. Including more colour in their meals (‘eating the rainbow’) is also a great way for them to gradually introduce more fibre to their diet. Most supermarkets stock a wide range of vegetables from fennel to beetroot and chicory to kale, so expanding their repertoire of vegetables needn’t be daunting or time-consuming.
In today’s busy world, staying hydrated can be challenging and when someone suffers a bereavement, as their life changes beyond all recognition, remembering to drink plenty of fluids can become even less of a priority. However fluids are vital for a healthy, functioning gut – they are required to produce stomach acid which in turn activates digestive enzymes. They are also needed to keep food moving through the digestive system. All sorts of digestive issues stem from a lack of hydration, including gas and bloating, constipation, diarrhoea and acid reflux. It’s common to ignore these conditions and write them off as symptoms of a busy and stressful life, but they should not be disregarded, as they can be early warning signs of a more serious gut condition.
So, trying if possible, to drink eight glasses of water a day is a good goal. Warm water - water that is boiled and then cooled is preferable to cold, because anything cold can cause blood constriction in the digestive system and impede its function. If a person doesn’t enjoy drinking water, if it is just not palatable for them, there are other ways for them to get water in. Although they can be an acquired taste, herbal teas are a great alternative as there are so many flavours to choose from and other supplements such as vitamin C or even lemon can be added to them, increasing their nutritional value.
Drinking during meals should ideally be avoided, as this affects digestion. Instead, drinking between meals – simply sipping small amounts throughout the day can be the easiest way for people to replenish fluids.
Where possible, hydration should primarily involve water, herbal teas and other fluids that are kind to the stomach, help to alleviate stress and support the immune system. Carbonated drinks should be avoided as they will likely aggravate any existing gas and bloating and sugar sweetened drinks will increase cravings.
Gut bacteria produces 95% of the body’s serotonin (or ‘happy’ hormone), which regulates mood. However, during grief, stress can impact gut bacteria, causing serotonin levels to drop. As this happens, people start to crave food that will increase their serotonin and bring them comfort – sugary foods such as cakes, cookies and biscuits. However, consumption of sugary foods can cause energy levels to spike and then plummet, leaving people even more tired than they were before.
In order to avoid these continual ‘crash and burn’ cycles, people should be encouraged to explore substitutes to sugar; for it is not sugar that is really being craved, it is simply the sweetness that sugar provides. Trying sweeter tasting vegetables such as sweet potatoes in soup form, might prove a palatable alternative. Certain natural sweeteners such as maple syrup and raw, organic honey are also nutritionally richer than white sugar, with both packed full of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. Medjool dates are also great sweet treats and act as a delicious porridge topper, along with a drizzle of honey or syrup. Alternatively, if a person is craving a sugar fix mid-morning or afternoon, having some pre-prepared energy balls made with honey or syrup, dates, oats and flaxseeds can help to satisfy cravings.
It’s important to remember that a person’s craving is telling them something important – that their body needs something more and that they are emotionally or physically malnourished. These cravings need to be met, but in the right way and with the right balance of nutrients.
Similar to sugary foods, consuming fatty food can make people feel better almost instantly. A cheesy pizza, a greasy burger or a grab bag packet of crisps can be the perfect antidote to someone’s sadness. However, this happiness is often short-lived and replaced with guilt at having indulged, for the risks that accompany a fatty diet are well known. A consistent build up of saturated fats can lead to higher cholesterol levels and leave a person at greater risk of heart disease and stroke. In the short-term they can also make a person feel sluggish, tired and overweight. As such, where possible, those grieving should be encouraged to avoid ‘bad’ fats that contain high levels of saturated fats such as red meat, cakes, biscuits, crisps and cheese and instead directed towards foods that contain ‘healthier’ fats such as fish, nuts and avocado.
A person’s nervous system is placed under extraordinary pressure during grief. As their body goes into high alert, their sympathetic nervous system kicks in and places them in fight or flight mode. This natural alarm system generates a flood of stress hormones which can, during grief, interfere with most of the body’s processes. One of the best ways a person grieving can support themselves, is by consciously activating their parasympathetic nervous system - the quieter, calmer part of the nervous system which regulates their bodily functions when they are at rest.
There are a number of ways a person can actively calm themselves.
The first is by reducing the amount of caffeine they drink to just one cup a day and switching to organic coffee if possible. Coffee causes additional stress on the kidneys, which already produce stress hormones, so drinking multiple cups of coffee a day, can cause the kidneys to become overwhelmed.
The second is cutting right back on their alcohol consumption. Alcohol dependency during grief is one of the biggest risks in a person’s grieving journey with people often relying on alcohol to self-medicate their emotional pain. Not only can this affect a person’s digestive system in the short-term but, it can cause them wider, long-term health complications as well as addiction issues.
The third is undertaking some very gentle exercise. Yoga, light gardening or even taking a short stroll in nature can help to activate a person’s parasympathetic nervous system and counteract the stress and anxiety they’re undergoing.
Finally, engaging in breathwork is a free and easy way for people to calm their system. Moving away from short shallow breaths and learning how to breathe more deeply from the abdomen, can transform a person’s mindset and encourage them to relax. Slow, deep breaths before a meal can also facilitate the digestion process. Mindfulness is a practice that people can engage in at any point during the day. It requires very little time or effort, yet can really help them gain control over their nervous system and manage their feelings.
During grief, high levels of prolonged stress, anxiety and depression can deplete a person’s vitamin levels. People struggling with loss often avoid stepping outside, preferring to shut themselves indoors, away from the rest of world. However, this prolonged lack of exposure to sunlight can lead to a depletion in their levels of vitamin D, compromising their bone health, cell growth and immune function. Stress can also lead to the heavy depletion of a person’s magnesium levels, subsequently affecting the amount of vitamin D they can produce naturally. Following consultation with a GP or a nutritionist, people may wish to consider taking supplements or multivitamins, as this can be a really simple and effective way of bolstering their immune system and replenishing vitamin and mineral stores, particularly if they aren’t getting all the nutrients they need through food.
The human body is truly remarkable. When a person struggles, either physically or emotionally, their body emits signals letting them know what it needs – whether it be rest, better nutrition or exercise. By tuning into these signals, by becoming more ‘body aware’ those grieving can learn to identify what they need to do to make themselves feel better. But knowing and doing are two very distinct concepts. A person may be aware of what their body requires, but until they develop self-compassion, until they learn to become their own best friend and develop the motivation to prioritise their own health and wellbeing, they may not act on what they know.
Unfortunately, being kind to oneself is challenging in today’s world. Pressure to feel perfect at work, at home and in social settings can leave people feeling inadequate and self-critical. As negative self-talk becomes part of their daily dialogue people have less energy and inclination to nurture themselves.
It’s vital that people recognise that the relationship they have with themselves is the most important one that they will ever have. This is especially true in bereavement. When there is no partner around to love them, care for them and advise them, people have to develop the self-motivation to look after themselves. Once they do, as soon as that relationship they hold with themselves develops into a positive, loving, compassionate one, it will become far easier for them to make better choices.
It’s worth noting that for those grieving, part of being self-aware and self-compassionate, is recognising what they’re struggling with and what they need support with. Often friends and family are desperate to help but don’t know how. Asking them for support with meal preparation or diet improvement is a great place to start. Whether it be providing friends with a shopping list of ingredients, asking family to help with the cooking, inviting them to share a meal, or even asking them to do the washing up, learning to ask for help is a massively important milestone in the healing process.
Grief is a natural emotional response to loss, but it is overwhelming and traumatic and can leave a person emotionally and nutritionally malnourished. Recognising that there is a deep, enduring connection between the gut and grief can help those struggling with loss to recognise what their body needs and identify the foods that will support their recovery and those that will harm it.
The steps they take to address and combat their nutritional deficit needn’t be unmanageable. By following a handful of simple tips and making some small adjustments to their diet, people can learn to take better control over their recovery. No-one can be expected to make healthy choices 100% of the time, especially during grief, but trying to remember the 80/20 rule is a good rule of thumb. If a person can make healthy choices 80% of the time, they can enjoy their favourite treats 20 % of the time and will soon reap the rewards of their healthier lifestyle.
People need to realise that they are their own biggest and best asset in life, that the relationship they have with themselves is the most important and that it is down to them to invest in their health and wellbeing. When they do, they’ll discover that the opportunities for growth and healing are limitless.