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Eating healthy on the road for physical and mental wellbeing

Emerging research confirms our belief that our brains and our gastrointestinal systems are closely connected, influencing mood, mental health, and our sense of well-being. These two organs are connected both physically and biochemically in a number of different ways.

How the vagus nerve controls your brain AND your gut

There are approximately 100 billion neurons in the human brain but your gut contains 500 million neurons, which are connected to your brain through the highway known as the nervous system. The vagus nerve, one of the biggest nerves, sends signals to connect the gut and brain. As an example, one study confirmed that individuals with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or Crohn’s disease had a reduced function of the vagus nerve.

Neurotransmitters also play a role

Neurotransmitters produced in the brain control feelings and emotions. For example, the neurotransmitter serotonin contributes to feelings of happiness and also helps control your body clock, but did you know that the largest proportion of serotonin is produced in the gut? That same intestinal microbiome also produces a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which helps control feelings of fear and anxiety.

The gut plays an important role in the immune system and inflammation by controlling what is absorbed into the bloodstream and what is passed along as waste. Lipopolysaccharide (LPS) is an inflammatory toxin made by certain bacteria. It can cause inflammation if too much of it passes from the gut into the bloodstream. This can happen when the gut barrier becomes leaky, which allows bacteria and LPS to cross over into the blood. Additionally, if your immune system is switched on for too long, it can lead to inflammation, which is associated with a number of brain disorders like depression and Alzheimer’s disease.

The role of carbs in inflammation

Speaking of an inflammatory response, research has shown that refined carbs cause inflammation throughout your body, much like added sugars. Carbs enter the bloodstream quickly and create inflammation while at the same time our body is trying to remove them quickly.

Although our brain accounts for just 2% of our body weight, the brain consumes half of our daily carbohydrate requirements—and glucose is its most important fuel. Under acute stress the brain requires some 12 percent more energy, leading many to reach for carbs and sugar (can you say stress eating or carbohydrate craving?!)

When you're craving carbs, you're usually being drawn to foods that encourage serotonin production. In a sense, reaching for sugary, carbohydrate-rich foods can be a way of self-medicating your feelings.

Making conscious (versus unconscious) choices

Research has shown that many of our cravings can be driven by habit or memories rather than bodily cues, leading to poor choices. While munching on chips and Twizzlers during a road trip is what you have always done, the aftereffects can be both unappetizing and long-term. We recently interviewed Sofia Sambunaris, an aspiring (and practicing!) food health expert who explains how you don’t need to sacrifice nutrition when you're on the go. Try these tips to keep meals and snacks healthy whether you are going by plane, train, or automobile or each whether at work or at home.

Plan ahead

"Healthy meals don't just happen. You have to make a commitment to eating in a way that fuels your body for optimum performance," says Sambunaris. "You have to plan meals and snacks a few days ahead, make a list and buy the foods you want to eat, and make time in your schedule to cook or prepare the foods." A few days before you travel, make healthy options and keep them packed in your pantry or refrigerator so you can throw them into a cooler as you take off on your next adventure.

If traveling, pack some healthy snacks but also write down a shopping list ahead of time. When you arrive at your destination, you can buy what you need to keep your mini-fridge well-stocked without the temptation of indulging in empty calories.

Make healthier choices at fast-food restaurants

Sometimes, when you are traveling by car, fast food is the only option. Try making healthier choices such as sandwiches packed with veggies, salads, fruit instead of French fries, and going with the grilled meat option. Staying whole food, plant-based is another way to stay true to your health goals.

Read food labels carefully

On the road, your only option when you are famished may be the gas station…which can easily lead to unhealthy choices. Looking at the nutrition label can help you make better choices – choose items (and drinks) beverages that don’t have a lot of added sugar or more than a handful of ingredients. Some stores are stocked with wraps, fruit, or individually portioned trail mix. Remember that some prepackaged foods may look like a single serving but actually contain multiple servings.

Identify your “why”

For Sambunaris, her “why” centers on properly fueling her body for optimal performance in competitive cheer and for supporting mind/body wellness for the long-term.

What to pack

Some of her favorites for staying on track while traveling include:

While it can take a little more time, understanding why you are making this important choice is key to staying on track while you travel, “It is so important to take care of yourself, which means making a commitment to living a healthy lifestyle. When you make that promise to yourself, you will find the way to make it work,” she said. Still, Sambunaris takes a balanced approach to living with a focus on her physical and mental health, “Life happens. Eating 100% fresh and organic every meal of every day is not realistic. You just do your best to make it a priority…When people say they don’t have time, it’s because they have not really made the commitment. That the most important thing.”

Angelo Sambunaris, M.D.

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