Giving Thanks Can Make You Healthier

The season of Thanksgiving is upon us. We gather, we celebrate, and we feast. The trappings of the traditional Thanksgiving meal may include a few things that are not always on our “eat healthy’ list. If we are really watching what we eat, some of us fret and worry as we head into the holidays in anticipation of having to deal with feelings of perhaps being deprived as we skip the heavy stuffing dishes (loaded with carbs) or our Mom’s favorite gravy recipe laden with flour, fat and salt. Perhaps many of us even toss all healthy habits to the curb that day and overindulge. But what if a holiday like Thanksgiving could be good for your health? What if we thought about Thanksgiving as something more than a meal? What if we skip over the large amounts of food offered to us and just focus on the word: “thanksgiving”, or, giving thanks?

The Oxford Dictionary defines the word “thanksgiving” as “the expression of gratitude, especially to God.” The celebration of Thanksgiving as a holiday originated with the Pilgrims in the 1600’s when they gave thanks in a celebration to commemorate the blessings of a good harvest. Thanksgiving is a holiday that gives rise to feeling grateful.  We might feel grateful for our families and friends we gather with, and for different things in our lives; our health, happiness, or the health and happiness of those we love and care for.  If we reflect on it enough it can give us a warm and happy feeling that may put a smile on our faces just in anticipation of it. Gratitude is a word that is derived from the Latin word “gratia” which means gratefulness or thankfulness.  

Think about it. Thanksgiving is really all about GRATITUDE; not about stuffing a turkey or yourself. And ‘gratitude’ just well may be the healthiest aspect of the entire feast. 

The Science of Gratitude:

Gratitude is not just a feeling. Gratitude influences your health – your physical health and your emotional and mental health. It has been cited as a ‘natural antidepressant. Emily Fletcher, a renowned meditation and stress expert and the founder of the Ziva Meditation Technique tells us that when we practice gratitude daily it can have the same effect as anti-depressant medications.  These feelings of happiness and contentment stem from the physiological experiences that we have from the neurotransmitters (those chemical messengers in our body) that are released when we express gratitude for something. Our brain releases those two ‘feel -good’ neurotransmitters – dopamine and serotonin. We FEEL happy, content, satisfied and at peace with ourselves and others. Gratitude affects the area in our brains called the limbic system. The limbic system regulates our emotional experiences. The hippocampus and the amygdala are the two main parts of the limbic system which regulate our emotions, memories and bodily functions and they  are activated with feelings of gratitude giving way to the release of dopamine and serotonin and bathing our brains and bodies in a chemical bath of…bliss.  

Gratitude and Weight Loss:

What if being grateful at Thanksgiving could counteract all those calorie laden foods we love to eat? In some ways, it can. Gratitude can help with weight loss in a few ways; primarily in shifting the emotional state with neurotransmitter production by increasing those feel-good neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin as well as lowering stress levels. Many times, those carb and sweet cravings we experience are really an indicator that we are too stressed out and feeling overwhelmed, so we seek self-soothing foods to calm us down. Remember, both dopamine and serotonin are also released when that sugar rush hits – it’s part of the addictive cycle of eating simple carbs and sweets. What if we are already calm and bathing our brains in those delightful neurotransmitters BEFORE we gather at the table of goodies? We may be less apt to feel compelled to self-medicate with sweets and simple carbs.

Reducing stress levels by way of practicing gratitude can also help with weight loss. Holidays are stressful for some of us; whether it be the dynamics of family conflict or perhaps the loneliness that kicks in when separated or estranged from loved ones on a traditional family holiday.  Remember; the stress response causes your digestive system to shut down; compromising your ability to properly digest your food and absorb nutrients. Blood sugars and blood fats rise when we are stressed. With chronic stress, cortisol (the commanding hormone of the stress response) loves to move all those toxic stress hormones around and store extra fat right in your mid-section. We tend to seek those self-soothing comfort foods to boost those feel good neurotransmitters when we stressed out and we end up “stress eating” our way through the holiday.  Again, steeping ourselves in gratitude is a delightful pleasure-bomb of dopamine and serotonin to our brains and bodies. It can be used to counteract stress eating and we won’t feel that ‘need’ to self-medicate with unhealthy foods.

Gratitude Helps Heart Health:

Behavioral Cardiology has long noted that people who experience stress, depression and a lot of anxiety are more apt to be people with cardiovascular disease. Cardiologists Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman in the 1950’s deemed people who were hostile, time urgent and competitive “Type A” personalities and these traits have long been linked to mortality from cardiovascular disease.

In a study that looked at asymptomatic heart failure; a heart disease condition there the heart has sustained some kind of structural damage but the patient is not experiencing any symptoms; those with a more grateful disposition were more apt to take better care of themselves, sleep better, be less depressed and less fatigued also experienced less systemic inflammation.

Dr. Robert A Emmons, Ph.D. and a professor of psychology at the University of California-Davis reports that clinical trials using the practice of gratitude lower blood pressure and improve immune function.  Other studies have indicated that gratitude can influence on reducing reactive blood pressure responses, lowering LDL, increasing HDL and even improving endothelial cell function in blood vessels.

Gratitude Improves Sleep:

Sleep is an important factor in maintaining good physical health and longevity. Low quality sleep affects every aspect of your health emotionally and physically. It’s not difficult to connect the dots on this aspect of gratitude. For most of us, sleep is disturbed by things like worry, stress and rumination that boost cortisol levels at night and keep us tossing and turning. Studies support the idea as well. Just taking 15 minutes to journal what you are grateful for has been found to have profound positive effects on sleep quality and quantity.

Gratitude Enhances Overall Physical and Emotional Health:

Simply stated, gratitude can change your life and your health. Maybe that’s why we need an official holiday to notice it? Our early Pilgrim leaders were on to something important and we can share in their insight by practicing gratitude on a more regular basis. Grateful people are known to exercise more, eat healthier foods and sustain better dietary patterns, are less likely to smoke or abuse alcohol or drugs and comply better at taking their medications as instructed by their doctors.   

Tips for practicing Gratitude:

  • Begin a Gratitude Journal by keeping a small notebook by your nightstand and take the time to really focus on 3 -5 things that you are grateful for- friends, family, health, employment and even tough circumstances that challenge you can be turned around if you focus on the lessons learned and maintain a hopeful, grateful attitude for better things to come.
  • Express thanks as you make your way through your day; whether its for someone holding a door for you or the smallest considerations of a co-worker, family member or even a complete stranger. Say ‘thank you’ and offer heartfelt appreciation for small acts of kindness you find in your daily journeys that may go unnoticed. 

On Thanksgiving: Steep yourself in gratitude. Remember the gratitude of the Pilgrims for their harvest and extend that to the pleasures of company, nourishing food and the “harvest’ of good things in your life. You’ll be less apt to feel that the holiday is all about the ‘stuffing’ and more likely to spend the day being mindful to not overindulge in less than nourishing foods.  You’ll feel happier and more content and maintain your Healthy Habits with much more ease. That is the true bounty of “Than

By:  Cindy Luisi, WHE, WHC, CCP, CDL Wellness Coach