How Food Feeds the Mind

– Written by Rebekah Miller, RDN, LDN at HBC Nutrition

The Gut-Brain Connection

Food not only nourishes the body, it feeds the mind. Glucose from the foods we eat acts as energy to keep the brain active and engaged. Fat from our diet helps to build the brain, which itself is 60% fat. Anyone who has experienced butterflies in the stomach knows that emotions and feelings experienced in the brain are also felt in the stomach. Ever get irritated or upset when you’re hungry? That gut-brain connection works both ways, with the brain sending signals to the digestive system and the digestive system sending signals back to the brain. Using the Enteric Nervous System (ENS), the GI tract and brain speak to each other through a nerve network that links emotion and cognition in the brain with the function of the gut. In fact, there are as many nerves in the gut as there are in the spinal cord.

The Main Character

How, then, can we use this connection to influence our mind and emotions? Are there foods that support healthy cognition and emotional regulation?  Indeed there are, but there is one more character heavily involved in the story of food and its role in the brain.  The GI tract is filled with nerves, but it is also filled with microbes.  These tiny bacteria reside throughout the digestive tract, even in the acidic environment of the stomach.  Each bacteria performs its own essential work.  Microbiota help create vitamin K, protect the lining of the intestine, improve food absorption and, most importantly, activate neural pathways between the gut and brain.

Microbes in the stomach are also responsible for regulating serotonin, a popular hormone known to stabilize mood, regulate sleep, inhibit pain, and aid in digestion. In fact, 95% of the serotonin produced in the body is produced in the GI tract.  While the science behind how exactly the serotonin from the gut can impact the serotonin in the brain is somewhat complicated, the basic principle is that a healthy microbiome in the gut improves the brain’s cognition and mood.  Changes to microbiota affect both gut and brain serotonin levels.

What Can We Do?

What can we do to help our microbe friends?  How do we increase the number of beneficial microbes in our digestive tract? How do we keep the ones we already have? Increasing the number of microbes can be done in two ways:

Eating Fermented or Cultured Foods

Eating foods like yogurt, miso, tempeh, and fermented vegetables like kimchi or sauerkraut, or drinking fermented drinks like kefir or kombucha on a regular basis helps build a powerful plethora of beneficial bacteria. Just be sure to buy these foods with active cultures in the refrigerated section of the store. Anything canned and shelf-stable no longer has many active bacteria.

Taking a Probiotic Supplement.

There has been research that suggests that food is a better carrier than supplements, but either way works. If supplements are a more preferred route, one study suggests that the ingested bacteria survive best when taken during a meal that contains some fat content, or up to 30 minutes before or after the meal.

Probiotics increase the number of bacteria. Prebiotics feed the bacteria already present.  Prebiotics are found in foods that contain fiber. Bacteria in the gut love to eat the parts of plants that are harder for our system to break down. Common prebiotic rich foods that can increase the health of your bacteria include: almonds, asparagus, bananas, garlic, kiwi, oats and whole wheats. Fiber is not only a good food for bacteria, but it also helps to regulate blood sugar and promote regular bowel movements. Remember! When increasing fiber in your diet, always do it slowly over a span of weeks, and be sure to increase the amount of water you drink as you increase fiber.

Other Ways to Promote Healthy Gut Flora

Stay active and manage your stress. Stress decreases the amount of bacteria in your gut and limits blood flow to the intestines, making digestion less effective.

Limit the amount of foods with refined sugars or too little fiber. Sugar encourages the growth of harmful bacteria in the gut. Too much harmful bacteria leaves little space for the beneficial ones to thrive.

Alcohol, too, can kill bacteria. Choosing recovery is a great step toward a healthy gut and brain!

Although we can’t see them, these little bacteria friends help us thrive.  They are one tool in our tool chest of ways to maintain a healthy mind and happy mood.

What will you do to feed your own microbiota?

Published on November 19, 2020

Monday Meditation: The Right to Vote

– Written by Rev. Tambi Swiney

On the eve of Election Day, we give thanks for those who have worked to extend voting rights to all Americans. Our country was 144 years old before women were granted the right to vote, with Tennessee playing a decisive role in the ratification of the  19th Amendment. This year marks the centennial of the of the passage of that amendment. Although the 15th Amendment – adopted in 1870 – barred voting rights discrimination on the basis of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” people of color were denied the right to vote by poll taxes, literacy tests, and other discriminatory practices in subsequent decades. The passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 dismantled some of the systemic discriminatory practices, but efforts to intimidate voters of color continues to the present election.

We would be wise to remember that while some people were motivated by their faith in God to work for universal suffrage, viewing voting rights as an issue of human dignity and justice, others used religious language to bolster their rationale for excluding women and people of color from voting booths. American history is unfortunately filled with disturbing examples of people who have done ungodly things in the name of God.

As we see video footage of women and people of color voting, keep the story of Fannie Lou Hamer in mind. On an August evening in 1962, Mrs. Hamer heard a sermon at William Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Ruleville, Mississippi, that launched her on a trajectory of voting rights activism. She made three attempts to register to vote before she succeeded, but her efforts came at a cost: she and her husband lost their jobs at the plantation where they worked, she faced death threats, and she was severely beaten. Nevertheless, she persisted. Her activism was rooted in her Christian faith, in her belief that all people are created by God in the image of God and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. Voting rights are human rights.

On the eve of Election Day, let us give thanks for Mrs. Hamer, and let us commit ourselves to working together for liberty and justice for all.

Published on November 2, 2020

Not Just Another Statistic

– Written by Jane Saffles-Granville, LMSW, Treatment Therapist

As a therapist in alcohol and drug treatment, one of the first things I ask my clients in our initial therapy sessions is a simple question: “Why did you come to treatment?” It has a handful of common answers. “For my children,” “I want to learn how to be sober,” or “I need coping skills.” One of the responses that has always given me pause is “I don’t want to be another statistic.”

When my clients say that, I hear not just “I don’t want to die,” but also “I don’t want to be forgotten.” The statistics of overdose death are harrowing. Most see the headlines, shake their heads, and go about their day. It can be hard to truly internalize the sheer number of deaths, the amount of loss, the number of grieving loved ones left behind.

For the past few months, it has felt like so many more people are dying. COVID has taken so many lives, and I think the full scope of its toll cannot be fully understood until you also look at so-called “deaths of desperation”—drug overdoses and suicide.

I have this seen firsthand in the past few months in a way I haven’t in my near decade of work in social services. The truth is, I’ve been navigating my own grief for too many clients of mine who have died. Women who had been in my outpatient group just days before, and women who had graduated residential treatment years ago, and many more in between. Women I saw cradle their pregnant bellies and cradle their infant children. Women who shared their own grief for loved ones who died of overdoses. Women who cheered on their peers for leaving an abuser, just as they had once done. Women who fought so hard for a way out of a system that was stacked against them. Women who made me laugh and exasperated me at the same time. Women who gave me hope. Women who were so vitally alive when they were sober, it was hard to imagine them in their addiction then and even harder now to imagine them gone.

I don’t know what led to their relapses. I don’t know what their last days were like, or how long they had been sober after the last time I saw them. It can be so easy to focus on the death by overdose, and see it as failure. But when I reflect on this feeling, a line from the poem “Failing and Flying” echoes in my head: “Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.” When we hear about the mythological Icarus, it is a cautionary tale of hubris and preventable tragedy; but what of the miraculous flight that happened first? His wax and feather wings did not last indefinitely, and yet he did fly. Isn’t that true for people who die from addiction? We struggle to look past the death to see the successes before it, the love before it, the life before it.

And so, I believe “I don’t want to be another statistic” has another meaning: “If my addiction kills me, I don’t want my memory to be reduced to my cause of death.” Sadly, some of those women who told me this have since lost their battle with addiction. They became what they feared: a statistic, one of the many lives lost this year. Overdose is a lonely and tragic way to die, stealing the futures of too many worthy people. On National Overdose Awareness Day, it is our job now to remember their lives, not just their deaths; their names and not just the numbers. They cannot, and will not, merely be a statistic.

Published on August 31, 2020

Monday Meditation: Tending the Soil

– Written by Rev. Tambi Swiney

Are you familiar with Jesus’ parable of the sower?

A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear. (Matthew 13:3-9)

At first, Jesus’ disciples did not understand the message of his story, so they requested clarification. Jesus explained that the seed represents the message of God’s liberating kingdom, and the soil is the recipient of the message. Sometimes God’s good news cannot take root because the hearer simply cannot comprehend the message. Sometimes the message is initially received eagerly, but the good news fails to take root when trouble arises. Sometimes the recipient hears and understands the message, but the distractions of life choke out the hope of God’s word, resulting in no lasting spiritual fruit. When the good news of God’s kingdom is sown in the life of someone who hears the word, understands the word, and metabolizes the word, then the fertile soil of this life yields a great spiritual harvest.

Perhaps this parable has another layer of meaning that is relevant to our work at The Next Door. Some clients come to us unable to comprehend the good news that healing is possible. Others arrive with eagerness, but as soon as frustrations arise, they give up and walk out. Still others understand that they don’t have to remain in bondage to addiction, and they know that mental illness can be treated. They earn their certificates and return home, but when the distractions of life become unmanageable, they return to old habits and relapse.

But there are success stories – thousands of them – women who hear and understand and metabolize the good news that healing is possible. With our help, they have learned to tend the soil of their lives. They have gained tools that help them to remove the obstacles that hinder recovery and growth, tools that help them to extract the thorns that have choked out the abundant life that God offers them. By the grace of God and with our help, their lives are bearing much fruit.

Let us keep tending the soil of our clients’ lives. Although it may initially appear that our labors are in vain when a client chooses to leave without completing the program, let us trust that incremental change is happening in the soil of their lives. Perhaps one rock was removed, one thorn was extracted. Perhaps one lesson was learned, one glimmer of hope was transmitted.

As we tend to the soil of our clients’ lives, let us also tend to our own gardens. How will you nurture your soil/soul today?

Published on August 24, 2020

Monday Meditation: A Time For Everything

– Written by Rev. Tambi Swiney

“There is a time for everything,

and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,

a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,

a time to love and a time to hate,

a time for war and a time for peace.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

 

The writer of Ecclesiastes lays out a series of dichotomies in this oft-recited passage, as if we can only do one or the other in a particular season of life. But have you found yourself living on both sides of a phrase simultaneously? For instance, have you been searching for something while also giving up something? Have you felt led to be silent about one thing but prompted to speak about another? Have you wept over one circumstance in your life while also rejoicing over another?

 

In this period of the pandemic, what time is it for you? What is being born in your life today? What needs to die? What have you been planting? What needs to be uprooted? Take a moment and reread the passage. Allow the Spirit of God to give you insight into this season of your life.

Published on August 21, 2020

Monday Meditation: Devotion vs. Doing

– Written by Rev. Tambi Swiney

“Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed Jesus into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And Martha went up to Jesus and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.’” (Luke 10:38-42)

This brief passage of Scripture speaks volumes about family dynamics. Did you notice how Martha, in her frustration, attempted to triangulate Jesus to resolve her conflict with her sister? I suspect that this was not the first time that Martha had been aggravated with her sister. I also suspect this was not the first time Mary that was oblivious to her sister’s exasperation.

Unfortunately, this passage has frequently been used to pit women against women – elevating those who worship over those who work, contrasting devotion with doing. Jesus certainly did not disapprove of serving others; he told his disciples that he came not to be served but to serve. Jesus and his disciples depended upon the willingness of others – particularly women – to serve them, feed them, shelter them, and support them financially. To follow Jesus meant – and still means – to embrace a life of service.

Jesus was not condemning serving when he responded to Martha’s request for intervention. So what did he mean when he declared that Mary had “chosen the good portion”? Neither sister was aware that Jesus’ days were numbered, but Jesus knew his time with his friends was limited. Mary seized the moment to sit in the presence of her Lord, to listen and to learn with intentionality. Is that the one necessary thing – to recognize in a given moment what is most important?

Every day we are called upon to make choices regarding where we will focus our attention. Situations that appear to require urgent attention often crowd out the interactions that are truly important. When we are anxious and troubled about many things, our ability to discern what is most important is impaired.

Perhaps sitting at Jesus’ feet is the antidote to our anxiety. In drawing near to Jesus, we gain perspective on what is truly important. Carving out time to be still, meditate, and pray can help us draw near to Jesus. But we can also pray as we serve, remembering that God is with us, within us. Throughout the day, we can seek the Spirit’s guidance to recognize the one thing that is necessary in a given moment. With God’s help, may we choose the good portion.

Published on August 3, 2020

One Day At A Time

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve all been pushed to the end of our ropes. So much of the news media has focused on the detriment COVID-19 has been to the recovery community. Don’t get me wrong, there have been – and will continue to be – devastating consequences. However, those in recovery also have an advantage that those who don’t struggle with addiction don’t.

For many of our clients, addiction is a response to some sort of trauma they’ve experienced. When the body goes through trauma, the brain takes control by activating its built-in survival mode. In the moment, this is good. It allows a person to live through the trauma. But when trauma is not dealt with or healed, the brain gets stuck in survival mode. Being in this mode creates a sense of constant anxiety, of not knowing what’s next, of always waiting for something else to go wrong.

Sound familiar? It’s what a lot of us have felt during COVID-19.

So what do we do? How do we survive when we’re constantly on edge and waiting for something else to go wrong? This is where coping skills come in. For our clients, the coping skill they are most comfortable with is using a substance. The effects of the drug or alcohol allow a woman to forget the anxiety or feel numb toward it. We’ve seen an increase in people using alcohol as a coping mechanism during this pandemic. Just look at your Facebook newsfeed. It’s filled with memes about drinking wine at noon.

A coping skill that is effective no matter what you’re struggling with is mindfulness. Mindfulness is just a fancy word for staying focused on the present moment. Essentially, it means taking things one day at a time. When we take the focus off the future, we can concentrate on the task in front of us, whether that task is your job, answering the question “why” from your child for the millionth time in an hour, staying sober, or simply surviving.

Those in recovery have known this for years, and those of us who are not are finally catching up. Recovery is about surrendering the things that are out of our control to a higher power and accepting the idea that we can’t control everything. These are conscious, daily practices for someone in recovery. The general public would do well to take a note from our sisters in recovery on how to do this.

As we continue to struggle through surges in COVID cases and questions about going back to school and the office, it’s easy to be overcome with anxiety and a list of things we don’t know and can’t control. Each time you find yourself spiraling into “what ifs,” repeat this to yourself: one day at a time.

Monday Meditation: The Struggle of A Lifetime

– Written by Rev. Tambi Swiney, Spiritual Wellness Coordinator

Over the weekend my social media feed has been filled with quotes from civil rights legend U.S. Representative John Lewis, who died on Friday after a battle with pancreatic cancer. (Read David Halberstam’s book The Children to learn how a young Lewis was profoundly shaped by his experiences in the Nashville Student Movement.) Of all the quotes I have read, these words from Rep. Lewis were the most striking to me:

“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime.”

These words are timely as we continue to wrestle with our nation’s racist past and strive to create an antiracist future for America. But these words don’t apply only to civil rights; they can just as easily describe addiction.

When clients leave The Next Door before completing treatment, when clients fail to take full advantage of the services we offer, when we receive news of the death of a former client, it’s easy to get lost in a sea of despair and question whether our work is making a difference. We would do well to remember that addiction is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year – it is the struggle of a lifetime.

Each day, our team brings our energy and training and creativity and compassion to our work at The Next Door. We work together for a common goal, knowing that there are no quick fixes. Let us encourage one another and not get lost in a sea of despair. Let us be hopeful and optimistic as we work together to transform lives, families, and communities.

“I pray that from God’s glorious, unlimited resources, you will be empowered with inner strength through the Holy Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep God’s love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. Now all glory to God, who is able, through God’s mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or imagine.” (Colossians 3:16-20)

Published on July 20, 2020

Monday Meditation: Trusting God with the Future

Written by Rev. Tambi Swiney, Spirtual Wellness Coordinator

As summer gave way to fall in 2002, the “wild, praying women” were hard at work finalizing a proposal to present to the leaders of First Baptist Nashville that would transform an empty building the church owned into a transitional living center for women in crisis. This proposal would have to successfully navigate the Baptist procedural gauntlet before the congregation would have the opportunity to vote. This meant that the church staff, deacons, Missions Committee, Property Management Committee, and Finance Committee would all have to give their blessing to the idea before the congregation could determine the future of The Next Door.

I remember the excitement and the anxiety of those days. I was excited because I sensed that the Spirit of God was doing something spectacular in our midst. I was anxious because even as the wild, praying women were finalizing their proposal, efforts were still being made to lease the empty building for commercial use. The huge “For Lease” sign at the corner of 8th Avenue South and Demonbreun unsettled me every time I drove past it. What if a business decided to lease the building? Would all of our efforts be in vain?

Obviously, my fears were misplaced. God has been transforming the lives of women in crisis through The Next Door for 16 years. Looking back, I now realize how God used that series of events to teach me about faith. Time after time in the intervening years, the Spirit of God has pointed me back to those days to remind me of God’s faithfulness, provision, and perfect timing. God is still at work at The Next Door. Let us trust God with the future.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. As the rain and the snow  come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:8-11)

Published on July 13, 2020

How Addiction Hijacks the Brain

– Written by Rev. Tambi Swiney, Spiritual Wellness Coordinator

In her memoir We Are the Luckiest: The Surprising Magic of a Sober Life, Laura McKowen recalls a cellphone conversation with her friend Holly the day after Laura almost attended a party where she knew she would relapse. Laura had reached out in desperation to Holly via text as her train neared her intended destination, torn between her craving to drink and her desire to avert certain disaster.

“Babe, your brain was hijacked.”[i] That’s how Holly summed up Laura’s experience the previous day. Holly explained what happens to the brain of an addict. The flood of dopamine that accompanies drug or alcohol usage short-circuits the brain’s prewired reward system. The hippocampus creates a record of this pleasure shortcut for future reference. The amygdala signals to the brain that less dopamine should be produced. Consequently, over time more and more of one’s drug of choice is required to achieve the desired pleasurable effect. Simply put, addiction hijacks normal brain circuitry.

The Apostle Paul was not addressing addiction when he wrote to the Christians in Rome in the first century, but Paul’s words certainly have a modern application: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15). Time and time again, clients at The Next Door lament the sequence of events that led them to seek out treatment for addiction (or led a court to force them to get treatment). No little girl grows up wanting to be an addict. Our clients don’t understand how it got so bad so quickly. They wrestle with self-worth: Am I a bad person because I kept drinking, kept using drugs, regardless of the consequences?

As our clients learn about brain chemistry during treatment at The Next Door, they discover how their brains have been hijacked by alcohol and drug usage. They come to understand the powerful internal forces that have kept them in bondage to addiction. They come to understand the good news that their brains can be rewired over time. They come to understand that they are worthy of love and respect. They come to understand that they can chart a new path of lifetime recovery, one that will require self-discipline, sober support, and spiritual grounding.

Fr. Richard Rohr, author of Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, believes that all human beings are addicts. Rohr writes: “Substance addictions like alcohol and drugs are merely the most visible form of addiction, but actually we are all addicted to our own habitual way of doing anything, our own defenses, and most especially, our patterned way of thinking, or how we process our reality.”[ii]

Rohr prompts those who are not addicted to a substance to consider the ways their brains have been hijacked by “stinking thinking” – a commonly used term in Alcoholics Anonymous. When do you fail to do what you intend to do? When do you do what you hate? How can you break the cycle? Just like those who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, we can’t make a change until we admit that we have a problem.

Creator God, creating still, create in us clean hearts, renewed spirits, and restored minds. Amen.

 

[i] McKowen, Laura, We Are the Luckiest: The Surprising Magic of a Sober Life (Novato: Callifornia, New World Library, 2020): 44.

[ii] Rohr, Richard, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps (Cincinnati, Ohio: St. Anthony Messenger Press: 2011): xxiii.

Published on July 9, 2020