Why We Use Food as an Energetic Buffer
And How to Break the Cycle
For as long as I can remember, my relationship with food has been complicated. On the one hand, I was super health conscious at an unusually young age—fascinated by all the different schools of thought that were emerging about how best to eat for optimal health. On the other hand, I was also quite young (probably less than ten) when I developed a rather dis-ordered relationship with food. To give you an idea, I seemed to be able to totally bypass any sense of satiety my body signaled, so I frequently overate to the point of being uncomfortable. And when I encountered sweets, I behaved as if they would never again be available. In middle school, I remember almost daily walks during lunch to the 7-Eleven around the corner, where I would casually serve myself a 32 oz. Slurpee without a second thought. Up until the age of thirteen, I was a very serious gymnast, so my level of activity allowed me to remain in fantastic shape no matter what I ate. But when I quit gymnastics, the pounds started to pile on rather immediately and, if I’m honest about it, I have struggled with my weight ever since.
Having spent the vast majority of my childhood prancing around in leotards without ever questioning my body’s appearance, nor its incredible capacity for strength, stamina, and athleticism, gaining weight was incredibly hard on me. I tried a number of weight-loss strategies, but this was the eighties and, unfortunately, there were all kinds of misconceptions about food and nutrition (including the demonization of fat and cholesterol) that left most mainstream weight-loss programs wanting for sustainability and efficacy. Besides, I was a teenager, so these programs weren’t really designed for me anyway.
Around this same time, puberty was causing my body to change in radical ways that were hard for me to understand or embrace. Unable to quell my gradual but persistent weight gain (like so many young girls my age), I began to judge my body very harshly. It was no longer good enough; in fact, I now believed that there was something terribly wrong with my body—and with me. This was excruciatingly painful on so many levels, and it affected my self-confidence in massive ways.
As a young adult, this pattern continued. While my diet was mostly composed of very healthy foods, I had no concept of appropriate portion sizes, and moderation completely abandoned me when presented with anything especially rich or sweet. In social situations where food was present, I seemed to eat mindlessly, and almost constantly, as if to protect myself from something—though what, I had no idea. None of this was at all congruent with my level of health-consciousness, and I found it all brutally frustrating. I came to perceive myself as rather weak-minded when it came to my diet. And I tended to oscillate between periods of being unhinged and periods of following unbearably strict rules, denying myself anything that I had decided was “off limits.” I accepted the disparity between these two realities and assumed that I was simply an emotional eater.
But there was one element of my struggle that was never addressed, or even named. A few short years ago, I learned that I was an empath—someone who can sense the emotions of others, or who is sensitive to the energetic nuances of individuals, groups, places, and sometimes even the collective consciousness. For most people who knew me at the time, it was laughable that I had never previously identified this about myself. But in truth, it was a total revelation—one that I initially resisted.
Gradually though, over time, the undeniable truth of it began to sink in, and I began to embrace both the gifts and the challenges that come with being as intuitive and energetically sensitive as I am. It also became obvious that these capacities had always been with me, but never before had anyone contextualized them for me, or taught me how to work with them. As I embraced my new-found awareness, my life-long relationship with food began to take on a very different meaning.
What I discovered is that there was actually a great deal of intelligence in my body’s cravings for foods that might somehow balance the intensity of the forces acting upon my nervous system. I learned that many empaths and intuitives use food in an attempt to buffer themselves against the overwhelming and often chaotic energies they encounter every day. Dr. Judith Orloff calls this, “Energy Defensive Eating.”1 Looking back, I have to wonder what might be different now, if I had known any of this when I was in my teens or twenties.
Are You a Sensitive, Intuitive, or Empath?
In truth, I believe that we all possess varying degrees of intuition and energetic sensitivity, though the particular nature of our capacities is likely as varied as we are. The thing is, our culture has for so long ignored these aspects of our humanness that many of us are rather disconnected from them. That being said, the following questions can help to establish how aware you are of your particular flavors of sensitivity:
- Do you have a high level of emotional intelligence?
- Have you spent a good portion of your life feeling like an outsider in a culture that just doesn’t seem to get you?
- Can you easily sense what others are feeling—so much so that you sometimes feel it in your own body?
- Do you tend to be affected by the mood or energy of individuals, groups, gathering places, or natural landscapes?
- Do you have a strong desire to serve or to make a difference, and do you therefore tend to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders?
- Are you exceptionally generous with your time, energy, or money? And is it perhaps easier for you to give than it is for you to receive?
If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, chances are that, on some level, you are relatively in touch with your intuition and energetic sensitivity. And if you’re anything like me, you may have actually been told throughout your life that you were too sensitive. You may therefore tend to perceive your sensitivity as more of an affliction than a gift.
But that’s a topic for a different blog post. Let’s get back to how they might be influencing your relationship with food. If you are highly sensitive, and you have ever felt like you’ve struggled to have a “normal” relationship with food, I hope that this perspective will be helpful. It has truly helped me to shift away from self-judgment and shame, while cultivating deeper compassion for myself and my journey.
What has become clear to me is that healing my relationship with food is ultimately about tending to my deepest inner nature in the most respectful way possible. It requires that I learn to honor and care for my subtle energetic capacities so that I don’t have to artificially buffer myself with food or by carrying excess weight. The principles of Ayurveda can be used to elegantly explain defensive eating habits, and can also point us in the direction of far more effective strategies for addressing the root cause of the problem—which is ultimately how we heal.
Through the Lens of Ayurveda
In the language of Ayurveda, the nervous system (majja vaha srotas), which has everything to do with how and what we perceive, is one of the most subtle channel systems in the body. It also happens to be a primary site of vata dosha, and Ayurveda considers sensitivity, intuition, and clairvoyance to be common expressions of vata. When we are exceptionally sensitive to the energies of our surroundings, our nervous systems are especially susceptible to becoming frayed and over-stimulated—a classic sign of aggravated vata.
The Nature of Vata and How to Balance It
Here are the basics: vata is dry, light, cold, rough, subtle, mobile, and clear by nature, and Ayurveda generally treats with opposites. So to pacify vata (which is essential in calming an overloaded nervous system and energy body), Ayurveda recommends increasing our exposure to heaviness, stability, warmth, unctuousness, smoothness, substance, and nourishment.
Now vata is comprised primarily of air and space, meaning that it is soothed by the earth element (which is heavy, grounding, and stabilizing), the water element (which is fluid, hydrating, and soothing), and the fire element (which is warming). In Ayurveda, each of the six tastes is composed primarily of two elements. And guess what? Vata is pacified by the sweet taste (earth and water elements), the sour taste (earth and fire elements), and the salty taste (water and fire elements).
Are you beginning to see the connection here? The qualities, elements, and tastes that are naturally present in many different foods—especially commonly-craved foods like sweets, salty snacks, breads, simple carbohydrates, and even sour foods (like cheese, sourdough, vinegar, and alcohol)—are precisely those with the potential to soothe a frayed nervous system.
Unfortunately, many exaggeratedly sweet, sour, and salty foods are highly processed, lacking prana (vital life-force energy), very dense and difficult to digest, and nutritionally empty. So even though they are not an ideal source of grounding, insulation, or comfort (and do not effectively restore balance) these foods do offer a quick and easy antidote to a complex imbalance—at least from the body’s perspective. And to further complicate matters, these foods are frequently right at our fingertips—incredibly easy to overuse or misuse, as our bodies search for any way to right a sinking ship.
Breaking the Cycle
The most important thing to understand here is that, when we find ourselves reaching for food in moments of crisis or energetic overwhelm, we are witnessing a confused attempt at love—an unintelligent craving based on intelligent underpinnings. Your body can feel that it’s off kilter and is simply trying to restore a sense of equilibrium. So my first suggestion would be that you begin to recognize the intelligence and beauty in the impulse (without judging yourself), while acknowledging what your body really wants: the restoration of balance that’s possible only when we’re willing to address the underlying cause of the problem. What follows are five simple suggestions that I hope will help you to do just that.
1. Ground and Clear Your Energy Regularly
Energetic overwhelm is very subtle and it tends to act first on the outer koshas of the body more so than the physical, material aspects. Much like a properly grounded building can withstand the destructive force of lightning, a properly grounded body can allow unwanted energies to move through without getting stuck. The following are the most effective ways that I know to ground and clear the system.
We can ground ourselves in any number of ways, the following among them:
- Stand with your knees slightly bent while focusing on your legs and feet.
- Imagine a grounding cord connecting your root chakra or pelvic floor to the core of the earth.
- Visualize roots growing down from your feet into the earth beneath you.
- Lie on the bare earth (or a yoga mat on the floor) and breathe slowly and deeply for a few minutes.
- Stand in Mountain Pose while fixing your gaze on the floor a couple of body lengths in front of you.
- Listen to a grounding meditation.
- Explore your own means of grounding and dropping into your body.
Prana, the vital breath, is the subtle essence of the life force that animates each of us. It infuses every cell and tissue throughout our bodies and is carried on and stimulated by the breath. Imbibing prana helps to restore fluidity and vitality to the subtle energy channels of the body while digesting and eliminating stagnation and ama (toxins). One of the best ways to bathe our tissues in fresh prana is to practice pranayama (yogic breathing exercises). If you are new to pranayama, Full Yogic Breath is a natural starting place. From there, consider Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing), which is incredibly effective at clearing and purifying the subtle channels of the mind-body organism, while balancing masculine and feminine energies.
Yoga moves prana in the body, helps to dissipate tension, clears stagnation, and encourages fluidity in the physical, mental, emotional, and energetic spheres. Ayurveda offers a nuanced approach to yoga that specifically helps to balance whichever doshas need the most attention. You can take our Ayurvedic Profile™ quiz to determine your current state of balance, but please consider including at least some vata-pacifying yoga to help clear any subtle, energetic overwhelm.
A dear friend of mine recently asked what my meditation practice was like, forcing me to recognize, and then sheepishly admit that there wasn’t one. Wait, what? I realized that, even though I have a great deal of experience with meditation, and fully recognize how potent and essential it can be—both as a form of self-care, and as a means of transformation—that my personal daily practice had somehow fallen by the wayside. This was very eye opening for me, and incredibly motivating. The next day, this same friend introduced me to a technique I had never experienced before, called Heart-Based Meditation, which has resonated with me deeply. I haven’t missed a day of practice since! Whatever form you are drawn to, meditation is one of the best ways to reset the nervous system. Even ten or fifteen minutes of practice, once or twice daily, can be immensely beneficial.
2. Slow Down and Reduce Stress
Subtle energy is highly mobile; it moves and shifts very rapidly. Simply slowing down and reducing stress can help to quiet and stabilize the system. Again, here are some simple suggestions:
- Lie on the couch for a few minutes, quietly observing your breath (maybe even take a short nap).
- Schedule down time.
- Go on a slow walk observing nature.
- Take a luxurious bath.
Of course, the best thing to do is to tune in and ask your body—in the moment—what it wants. You might be surprised by the answers that come when you pause long enough to listen and then actually give yourself permission to rest, relax, and restore.
If your stress level is chronically high, consider reading An Ayurvedic Guide to Stress Management for additional support and ideas.
3. Focus More on Fun, Play, and Sensual Pleasure
Many empaths and intuitives (myself included) carry the weight of the world on their shoulders and feel a deep obligation to serve the transformation of consciousness on the planet. Unfortunately, this well-meaning intention is often accompanied by a disproportionate emphasis on pursuing meaning and purpose—on making a difference. We often don’t allow ourselves to have fun, be playful, or enjoy ourselves until after we’ve tended to the “important stuff,” which of course, essentially means never.
Not long ago, I realized that food was one of the few sensual pleasures I allowed myself on a daily basis, because I was otherwise so focused on wanting to do my work in the world. But pleasure, play, fun, and variety are very real human needs. And for me, they were needs that were being completely ignored, and therefore not at all met. Ever since, I have been intently focused on having more fun, being more playful, and on enjoying the sensual nature of my daily human experience, and it has made a huge difference. No longer is food the only means I have of meeting this essential need. That said, eating is a very sensual and potentially pleasurable experience—one worth offering our full attention at every meal. Food is also a critically important source of prana, so the foods most supportive of our optimal health are vibrantly alive—brimming with life-force energy. Allowing ourselves to resonate fully with receiving these qualities from our foods as we eat can vastly imporve how satisfied we feel, and can encourage us to make more conscious choices more easefully.
4. Water Yourself
Water is deeply cleansing by nature, and as we have seen, the water element itself is medicine for a frayed nervous system. Many sensitives are aware that, in order to stay hydrated, they have to drink far more water than most. Experiment with how your body feels drinking more water more often. Better yet, try drinking warm water, or sipping on hot water throughout the day. The heat makes the water even more cleansing, and also serves to protect the digestive fire, while soothing vata.
Most of us also benefit from submersing our entire bodies in water regularly. This might mean showering daily, taking luxurious baths, or enjoying frequent dips in nearby lakes, streams, oceans, or hot springs.
5. Get Good Sleep
Unintelligent food cravings are frequently exacerbated when our bodies are tired or run down. The body seeks calories of all kinds when attempting to replace depleted energy, but often especially craves sugar, caffeine, and other stimulants, which are generally counterproductive. Healthy sleep habits are supremely supportive of anyone with high levels of energetic sensitivity. Getting enough rest is one of the best ways to pacify vata, but it also helps us avoid unnecessary exhaustion while delivering the many restorative benefits of sound sleep. If sleep is a challenge area for you, consider reading An Ayurvedic Guide to Balanced Sleep.
Optional: Ayurvedic Herbal Support
The following herbs and formulas may add a welcome level of support to your healing process:
- Healthy Vata tablets. Healthy Vata tablets are uniquely formulated to reduce vata systemically while nourishing the body with a rejuvenating blend of herbs. The tastes and qualities in this formula serve to reduce the very types of imbalances that so often lead to defensive eating habits.
- Tranquil Mind tablets. Carefully formulated to soothe and calm the nerves without creating dullness or lethargy, Tranquil Mind tablets are deeply vata-pacifying, and help to promote a natural sense of peace and well-being.
- Tulsi. Tulsi, also known as holy basil, is so highly revered in India that it is often kept in and around the home for its deeply purifying and beneficial properties. This plant is very sattvic in nature; it serves to elevate awareness, mental clarity, and the energy of love, and can therefore be very supportive of those of us who are energetically sensitive. We offer Tulsi tablets, liquid extract, and powder.
- Chyavanprash. Chyavanprash is a traditional Ayurvedic herbal jam made in a base of amalaki fruit. This balancing formula kindles agni, serves to buffer the body against stress, and bolsters the immune system. A daily dose of this nutritive jam is highly rejuvenative and can support improved energy, vitality, and overall well-being.
In Every Challenge Lies an Opportunity
In retrospect, I can see so clearly how food has always helped me to navigate the energetic chaos so common in our modern lives. And I can truly appreciate the ways in which food—and even my excess weight—have served to buffer my system against the intensity with which I feel everything.
The truth is that ever since the weight appeared, I’ve been terrified at the prospect of losing it (despite desperately wanting to). The concept of energy defensive eating has helped me to understand why. Remarkably, as I’ve begun to tend to my deeper needs, the possibility of shedding the extra pounds has felt less and less frightening. In fact, I truly believe that I am currently in the process of letting go of my reliance on food and excess weight as a form of energetic protection and shielding. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me that this shift aligns perfectly with my newfound willingness to tend to my subtle energetic nature more consciously—in precisely the ways I’ve outlined above.
I trust completely that, once my deeper underlying needs are being fully acknowledged and met, my body won’t need the band-aids that overindulgence, overeating, and excess weight have always provided. And my hope is that, from that place, food can become a source of nourishment, vitality, and genuine pleasure rather than a confused means of correcting a deeper underlying imbalance. It’s also worth noting that the prerequisite to this entire exploration was my willingness to claim my sensitivities as the gifts that they truly are—and to start using them as such. That was the starting point.
If food has been one of your challenges, I sincerely wish the same for you. May each of you own fully who you are, claim your magic, and shine your light fully into the world! We’re all in this discovery together. I firmly believe that the more we can share openly and honestly about our experiences—even those that make us feel broken or ashamed—the more we’ll be able to lift each other up and transcend the limitations that have held us back for so long. Here’s to our collective awakening, healing, and willingness to shine light into the shadowy places.