In the spirit of CARE, let’s start this conversation by having you envision a single cell in your body.
Cells look a lot like a pin cushion. Their surfaces aren’t smooth at all, but rather, are full of individual receptors (the pins). These receptors are critical to influencing how that cell behaves.
Depending on what the receptor communicates to the cell, that cell could start making more of something, it could start making less, it could speed up or slow down – and your overall health, risk of disease, and how you just plain feel that day depends on this activity.
So what determines what the receptor will communicate to the cell?
This includes, but is not limited to, what chemical nestles right onto the top of the receptor or how much of different chemicals are available in your blood.
These chemicals can include good-for-us substances like:
- and neurotransmitters
Or they can be not-good-for-us substances like:
- excess caffeine and alcohol
- food additives and colorings (like MSG)
- or excess sodium or glucose/sugar
As I talk about in Eat with Purpose: Why We Have to CARE, every minute of every day your cells try to make the best decision based on the ‘information’ or tools that you provide them.
Overconsumption, excess intake of food chemicals and drugs, and high stress all contribute to lots of not-good-for-us substances available in the blood. These substances wreak havoc on the information available to those receptors.
The old saying of ‘garbage in, garbage out’ applies here. When you only give your cells garbage to work with, you feel like garbage.
But interestingly, over time you start to build a tolerance to how this dysfunction feels.
In this ironic twist, eating too much and too many chemically-based ‘foods’ actually does make you feel better.
This is no different than a smoker. The first time a smoker puffs on a cigarette, the reaction from the body is severe. There is violent coughing, immediate lightheadedness, some GI discomfort. But by that third or fourth day, those selfless receptors have adapted to being bullied by nicotine nestling right on top of it. Having nicotine there (even though harmful) becomes its new normal. It creates workarounds and compromises ideal functioning, but you now interpret this as ‘feeling good’.
That cigarette no longer makes you cough, it makes you feel pleasure.
Until you remove it…
This picks up the story with our subject of why we temporarily feel worse when starting to eat healthy.
You (meaning your receptors and cells) have adapted to higher amounts of not-good-for-you substances in chemical-based foods and overconsumption. This has become your new normal.
You, in that ironic twist, feel better here.
Until you remove them…
Just like the smoker, your receptors adjusted to dysfunction.
Their normal is now defined by access to these substances. When you remove them, you change the information available to them again altering how each cell responds. Initially, that feels bad – even though it is good.
How long it takes for those receptors and cells (and ultimately you) to recover depends on so many factors (genetics, nutritional status, environment, social and physical stress, how many changes you made at once), but on average in as little as three to four days you will start to feel better from eating healthier.
Timeline of what happens and why you feel worse when starting to eat healthy:
- Removing chemical ‘foods’ and overconsumption means that your cell receptors no longer have access to those not-good-for-you substances.
- Many of these chemicals stimulated cells (like with MSG) or amplified the releases of feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. This alone will affect mood, energy levels, and sleep.
- Increased circulation from more activity and better hydration (which increases the availability of oxygen and nutrients) combined with the removal of excess chemicals in the blood (like glucose and sodium) can create vascular changes (even if good for you) that can result in a headache.
- Healthy changes also decrease the total stress burden on the body. Your efforts to increase physical activity and decrease chemicals, including caffeine and alcohol, will result in decreased circulating stress hormones, like cortisol, which is a natural steroid that has anti-inflammatory properties (just like the prescription). Short-term, good for us. Long-term, bad for us. Bringing stress hormone levels down will initially alter the immune system which you could experience as getting a cold or just feeling lousy. This happens often when people go on vacation – they finally reduce their stress levels and then get sick right away.
- The liver, kidneys, and skin are all involved in and responsible for the natural detoxification of all these changes to hormone levels (like cortisol and insulin) and other chemicals. As the liver, kidneys, and skin respond, breakouts or skin rashes can result.
The Great News
The great news with lifestyle changes, like increased nutrient-richness, increased activity, and increased stress management and recovery, is that these changes are the foundation needed to make more challenging healthy changes (like quitting smoking). Our cells thrive quickly when we remove chemicals and give them tools to heal versus harm.
- Receptors will become more sensitive to things like insulin, sodium, and hormones which over time will regulate blood glucose and blood pressure.
- As blood glucose is better regulated and consumption moderated, metabolism gets more efficient at utilizing stored adipose tissue (fat) for energy.
- The decreased burden on the liver results in better regulation of lipids (like cholesterol) and sex hormones.
- The increased circulation and vascular changes move from causing headaches to decreasing risk of heart disease and improving cognition.
So how do you make it through (temporarily) feeling worse to feeling good?
Use this time to increase awareness of your body; increase mindfulness.
- Continue eliminating the not-good-for-you substances
- Continue eating a nutrient-rich, whole foods, produce-based diet; get help from a program if you need guidance
- Continue moving
- Stay hydrated
- Have a plan so you can consistently do these things; find internal versus external motivation this time
Appreciate the calming feeling of these lifestyle choices that we often misinterpret as sluggish or low energy. We are a society that spends billions of dollars to override our natural cues to rest. Our right hand spends billions for stimulants while our left spends billions for relaxation and sleep aides. We can’t even distinguish between the two anymore when we remove all chemicals and overconsumption.
This time, appreciate the calm.
Appreciate that you feel sluggish because your body is finally putting resources into healing. Like that sprained ankle from Eat with Purpose: Why We Have to CARE, finally, let your body rest and heal. You will be rewarded with greater strength than you thought possible.
Teri Rose, CARE Nutritionist and Program Director
Continue Reading: How to Sustain Healthy Changes