This One Emotion Is Worse for Your Health Than Junk Food, According to a Leading Functional Medicine Doctor

Updated: Apr. 30, 2024

A doctor to the stars says emotions can be one of the worst causes of inflammation that leads to disease. Here's his secret to recalibrate your gut-brain connection. 

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Functionally, food really is medicine. Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, a functional medicine expert and adviser to high-profile figures like Gwyneth Paltrow and Drew Barrymore, says eating a nutrient-dense diet is associated with a lower risk of pretty much every chronic disease—but what we feed our gut goes far beyond physical benefits. “Our gut (intestinal system) and our brain are formed from the same fetal tissue when we’re growing in our mother’s womb, and they are inextricably linked for the rest of our lives through what’s known as the gut-brain axis,” he explains. In a nutshell, this means that what we eat has a major influence on our mental health, too. 

But in his March 2023 book, Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel, Dr. Cole explores how we often overlook the other side of this gut-brain relationship: The toll our thoughts, feelings, and emotions take on our gut health—and the cyclical health struggles we can suffer as a result. 

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Dr. Will Cole explains the gut’s hold on our health

The major player when it comes to gut health is our gut microbiome, a whole ecosystem of bacteria and microorganisms that co-evolved with humans—which is responsible for keeping many of our major systems functioning. Dr. Cole explains that without it, our physiology wouldn’t be able to complete functions like converting hormones, making our own neurotransmitters, operating an immune system, or digesting food.

It has big implications for our mental health, too. For instance, around 95% of serotonin (the “happiness hormone”) and 50% of dopamine (the pleasure hormone) are produced in the gut. “Studies are now showing that lower levels of beneficial bacteria impact [these types of] hormone production, and that influences people’s mood and well-being,” Dr. Cole says. 

Still, 75% of the immune system is located in the gut, too—and microbiome imbalances can trigger an inflammatory response. “Inflammation by itself is not inherently bad,” Dr. Cole explains, adding that in fact, inflammation is a product of the immune system designed to fight off pathogens, viruses, and harmful bacteria. “The problem is a chronic inflammatory response in people,” he says. “Inflammation is a commonality between pretty much any health issue under the sun.” This link between imbalances in our gut microbiome and disease is well-established, according to the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, associated with chronic conditions ranging from diabetes and heart disease to chronic stress, depression, and Parkinson’s disease

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Recent research, such as a 2021 study published in the peer-reviewed medical journal, Nature Medicine, has made it crystal clear that our diet shapes our microbiome—which in turn, impacts our risk of disease. “It’s easy to say, OK, these foods are good for your gut, these foods support healthy inflammation levels, these foods can raise inflammation,” Dr. Cole says. But he emphasizes how the gut-brain connection doesn’t just flow one way. It’s bi-directional: The brain influences the gut and, by way, our overall health, just as much as gut health is a factor in our physical and psychological well-being.

“In the West,” Dr. Cole says, “we oftentimes treat mental health as sort of a separate, abstract thing—that somehow, it’s different from the rest of our health. But the reality is that mental health is physical health, and our brain is a part of our body just as much as any other organ.” 

That’s why wellness is not just about eating “the right things.” As Dr. Cole writes in Gut Feelings: “The truth is that low-quality, inflammatory junk foods aren’t the only thing sabotaging our wellness. Many of us experience emotional factors that are just as damaging as any refined flour or high-fructose corn syrup,” like chronic stress, toxic productivity, perfectionism, and unresolved trauma. Dr. Cole says that’s why many people start eating cleaner but just can’t seem to reach their health goals or feel at their best. “Most are not looking at the power these feelings wield, how they perpetuate that inflammatory storm.” 

As a way to articulate how our emotional world harms our physical one, Dr. Cole uses the term “Shameflammation,” which he says can take many forms. You could be mindlessly eating a perfectly healthy meal but stressed at your desk rushing to meet a deadline; beating yourself up for having an extra slice of pizza; or chasing the “perfect” diet and lifestyle—as Dr. Cole puts it, today’s “toxic diet culture that’s about shaming one’s way to wellness.” 

And these feelings don’t necessarily have to revolve around food. “Chronic stress is intimately tied to shame,” he explains. For example, people feel shame for being too busy and not being able to be present with their loved ones, that they get irritable or snappy under so much stress, or experience shame that they can’t meet unattainable standards—like those set by social media content. “And on top of that, all the deadlines and schedules and FOMO (fear of missing out), all of it is really contributing to nervous system and immune system dysregulation, chronic inflammation.” 

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Healing our brain-gut axis is about shifting perspective around both our eating habits and our lifestyle, Dr. Cole explains. “I say in the book: You can eat whatever you want, but what if we start using food as meditation just as much as we use food as medicine?” Gut Feelings discusses how to develop a more mindful approach to eating, like being fully present when having a meal, getting more curious about the foods you eat, and taking the time to check in with yourself, considering how different foods make you feel.

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But on the flip side, his approach revolves around “not becoming maniacal, militant, or restrictive about [your diet].” For instance, maybe you indulge in some not-so-healthy foods, but that meal was about spending time with family or friends, so it was worth it. “Or you may realize a food choice wasn’t worth it for you,” he says. And if that’s the case, be mindful about not feeling shame—instead, acknowledge this awareness of your body’s relationship with food and allow it to grow—a concept Dr. Cole calls Food Peace. 

And just as you’d nourish your body with food, nourish your mind with what he calls metaphysical meals. “Just like you’d show up for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, add little metaphysical meals once, twice, three times a day to just ground yourself,” he says. 

This mindfulness-based practice is a part of cultivating what Dr. Cole calls a “joy of missing out,” the antithesis of today’s inflammation-boosting FOMO culture. “This could be 10 minutes of breathwork or meditation,” he suggests, but there’s no right way to pursue setting these boundaries for yourself. He points to the Danish tradition of hygge, finding cozy contentment in life’s simple pleasures like reading a good book or making a great cup of tea. Or there’s Shinrin-yoku, a Japanese philosophy that translates to “forest bathing,” or simply spending time in nature. “Do whatever resonates with you that’s accessible, approachable, and you can keep consistent,” Dr. Cole says. 

To learn more, check out Dr. Cole’s book, Gut Feelings, complete with his 21-day gut-feeling plan and food as meditation recipes to kick-start your shameflammation-free life. 

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