A nutritionist’s guide to surviving a heartbreak
The high and the low
Some of us have had the luck of falling in love, experiencing that incredible high, the feeling of being about to burst with too much happiness. Walking around town with a constant smile on your face whilst listening to a special song on repeat, going over every detail of the last time you saw each other and counting the minutes till you’ll get to spend time together again.
Having said that, some of us have unfortunately followed that rollercoaster high with a pretty steep fall. The fall that maybe you did not see coming, or maybe you did but you still hung on for dear life, hoping it would keep you from getting hurt.
Lockdown season unfortunately marked the end of numerous relationships (yours truly included), so a few of us found themselves suddenly alone in the house with only memories of what once was, and literally nowhere to go.
Now don’t get me wrong, going through a heartbreak is always hard no matter where you are and whoever you live with. But going through it alone and during a lockdown, it’s a whole new ball game.
Because yes you can video call family and friends and you should be grateful if you have had the chance to do that, but not being able to have a comforting hug or touch when you feel like the ground beneath your feet is falling, well it can make things really challenging.
So, to anyone who has done that and is still standing, I applaud you.
Road to Recovery
This article was born to use this intense situation I am still working daily to move on from, to help anyone else who may be in the same boat right now, or who may find themselves in it in the future.
Here are my simple nutrition and lifestyle tips that I hope help you, at least in part, to support both your physical and mental health as you navigate your way out of this emotional storm.
It is important to try and get some nutrients in you
Quick meals to keep you going
Soon after a breakup, you may not feel very hungry (I certainly wasn’t), but it’s still important to try and get some nutrients in you. The last thing you want is to be heartbroken and sick, when no one is going to bring you chicken soup in bed. So, time to buckle up and have your own back.
Soups are the easiest choice, quick to make, few ingredients needed and easier to digest (especially if blended). I lived for a few days off lentil soup with some carrots and celery thrown in. Carrot, red lentil and ginger is another good one, red lentils and chestnut is great for the cold season too. Always add a swirl of olive oil before eating, so you can throw some healthy fats in there too.
Smoothies can also work well. Again, you just need to throw a bunch of stuff in a blender and you’re done. Make sure to pack protein, healthy fats and fibre into your smoothie – you can search for options for each of these on the Superfied platform.
For example, you could include avocado or a couple of tablespoons of chia seeds or some nut butter for top-up on protein and healthy fat, and maybe a handful of oats for B vitamins (think energy) and extra fibre too.
Feed your adrenal glands
Emotional and physical stress in the form of sadness, anxiety and oh so many tears, can deplete your adrenal glands (the two little pyramids on top of your kidneys that push cortisol, your stress hormone, into your bloodstream to deal with emergencies) of the nutrients they feed on.
Make sure to use foods that can provide you with minerals and vitamins to support them, namely: B vitamins, selenium, magnesium, Vitamin C:
Include food rich in B vitamins including B12, B1 (thiamine), B5 (pantothenic acid), B3 (niacin): think whole grains (e.g. oats, brown rice, buckwheat, quinoa), beans, dark green leafy vegetables (e.g. spinach, broccoli, turnip greens, asparagus), fish and shellfish, eggs, liver, poultry and red meat, salmon, tuna, chickpeas, milk, cheese, yogurt, fortified nutritional yeast…
Top-up on selenium-rich foods such as brazil nuts, tuna, halibut, sardines, shrimp, turkey and chicken
Add foods like pumpkin, chia seeds, almonds, spinach, cashews, peanuts, black beans and edamame
Think about foods like red pepper, orange, kiwi, green pepper, broccoli, strawberries, brussel sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower
If the above is confusing you, just focus on mixing different coloured vegetables, plant or animal protein of your choice and some wholegrains in the same plate. Dress with healthy fats (eg olive oil) or have some avocado or olives, a handful of seeds or nuts with it and you are good to go.
Give your gut a hug
Stress can have an adverse effect on the balance in your gut bacteria, promoting the growth of opportunistic over beneficial ones. This can lead to bloating, cramps, constipation, diarrhoea and more. Trust me, it’s better to cry on a comfortable bed or couch, rather than bent over in pain on the toilet.
To try and avoid all these symptoms, you could think about adding some pro and prebiotic foods to your meals or snack (whatever you feel like eating).
If you’re wondering about prebiotics, they feed your beneficial bacteria and can be found in foods such as asparagus, green bananas, garlic, onions, apples, Jerusalem artichokes to name a few. Probiotic foods contain live bacteria, think yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha. You can find a full list at Superfied.
One suggestion: if you are not used to eating prebiotic foods, start low and go slow, letting your body adjust. This should avoid potential bloating and gas.
Hydrate! Hydrate! Hydrate!
When we are stressed or anxious, we can lose water from our bodies. How?
Some people can have more bowel movements than usual, especially if they suffer from IBS where stress can easily be a trigger for flair ups. More bowel movements or looser bowel movements = water loss
When we are anxious, we can sweat more = water loss
Unfortunately, whilst we are too busy crying, staring at the walls, punching pillows or just trying to distract ourselves watching Netflix, we can forget to do the basic stuff: drink some water.
So set a reminder if you need to, make the water bottle or water filter your shadow and keep it next to you for a visual reminder but try to drink at least 4 pints in a day. Herbal teas count too.
Easier said than done, but try to decrease foods that can make your blood sugar spike and crash, creating endogenous stress (inside your body), or that could worsen any inflammation that stress may already have triggered: alcohol, coffee, sugary foods like ice cream, pastries and cookies.
Having said that, if one day you really cannot stay away from that pint of ice cream, just do it. You are human after all and this is pretty crap time so give yourself a break.
You may not feel fabulous after that much sugar anyway, so just choose healthier options the following day to get your body back to balance again.
Take a walk on the wild side
Or at least at the local park! Since my break up in March, I have walked the perimeter of the park near my house religiously at least twice a day (once when we only had one hour of air in lockdown). Every single time I came back feeling better, sometimes a little better, sometimes much more.
I felt like I could breathe again and felt lighter, and watching lots and lots of dogs playing around really helped to switch my thoughts from crappy to happy at least for a short time.
This is my own experience, but it’s also backed up by science, in fact, a 2018 study showed that “locations with highest levels of nature had the greatest effect on reducing levels of stress” and 2019 research in the publication Nature, suggested that 120 or more minutes of contact with nature per week, was associated with good health or high wellbeing consistently across different groups including older adults and those with long term health issues.
Move your body, let the energy out
Something else that really helped me, especially at the beginning, was trying to be disciplined and moving my body each single day.
Sometimes I had lots of sadness or angry energy to let out, so resistance work really helped or kickboxing workouts (my sessions varied from 20 to 40 minutes, based on how much sleep I got the night before, hence how much energy I had left). If the previous night had been a really rough one, then just a simple stretching session would do the trick.
I know, when you are heartbroken the last think you want to do is put your leggings on and work out, but I never regretted it. Sometimes I cried all the way through, which would have been fantastic in a comedy, other times I really enjoyed letting all those heavy feelings out through movement and weight lifting.
Weight, cardio or stretching, I moved my body each day and never regretted it. I needed the endorphins; I needed the good stuff. So, choose whatever exercise you may feel like doing, be it running, yoga, Pilates, dancing or just stretching. It does not matter as long as you move.
I enjoyed letting all those heavy feelings out through movement
Take time to focus on your breath
As time went on, I managed to cry less and attempted some short breathing/guided meditations sessions.
The ones I found most useful were on a free app called FitOn (which I still use for both workouts and meditations), or if I needed something deeper and a little more intense, I would try some breathwork sessions on an app called Flourish. Just Breathe is another great and simple app that I like with sessions as short as two minutes.
Biohack your stress response
If you are someone interested in biohacking, you can also have a look at Sensate. It’s a small gadget that looks like a river stone that you place on your chest and connects to an app that plays music.
Based on the rhythm of the music, the stone vibrates and stimulates your vagus nerve (connecting your gut to your brain and branching to many other organs in your body), stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system (the one that calms you down), and supporting better sleep too. It’s not free but it can be a useful investment to try if you run out of options.
Borrow my doggy
I am sharing the one thing that probably helped me the most, especially whilst I still had two months of lockdown to go.
Being a dog lover since I was a child, I joined an app called BorrowMyDoggy, which lets you borrow other people’s dogs so they can learn to socialise and you can get the happy factor without the commitment of having your own dog (or maybe just because your landlord does not allow you to have one in the house).
Research has actually shown that simply petting a dog can lower cortisol levels and the interaction between you and the dog can increase the hormone oxytocin (the so-called ‘love hormone’).
Thanks to BorrowMyDoggy I met Lucy, and she has been my fluffy guardian angel ever since. We meet once to twice a week for a few hours, chill on the couch or play at the park and every time I see her or simply pet her, I feel instantly calm and so much happier.
So if you are a dog lover, this can be another option for you.
It’s good to talk
If you can, talk to someone. Don’t keep all these emotions and thoughts inside. Friends, family, or if that’s not a possibility even calling support phone lines such as The Samaritans can really help. They are happy to listen and talk to you 24/7.
Sending you my love
I hope you found these suggestions useful and no matter what you think, please know the journey out of your heartbreak won’t be linear but it will slowly get better.
Sometimes you will feel like you are taking two steps back and that’s ok, you will take one more forward tomorrow. And remember, considering what you are going through, you are doing a great job.
Nutrients and Botanicals for Treatment of Stress: Adrenal Fatigue, Neurotransmitter Imbalance, Anxiety, and Restless Sleep (2009). Kathleen A. Head, ND, and Gregory S. Kelly, ND https://altmedrev.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/v14-2-114.pdf
Levels of Nature and Stress Response (2018). Alan Ewert and Yun Chang https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5981243/
Spending at least 120minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing (2019). Mathew P.White, IanAlcock, JamesGrellier, BenedictW.Wheeler, Terry Hartig, Sara L.Warber, Angie Bone, Michael H. Depledge & Lora E. Fleming. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-44097-3.pdf
The efficacy of aerobic exercise and resistance training as transdiagnostic interventions for anxiety-related disorders and constructs: A randomized controlled trial (2017). Daniel M LeBouthillier, Gordon J G Asmundson. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29049901/
Moving to Beat Anxiety: Epidemiology and Therapeutic Issues with Physical Activity for Anxiety (2018). Aaron Kandola, Davy Vancampfort, Matthew Herring, Amanda Rebar, Mats Hallgren, Joseph Firth and Brendon Stubbs. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6061211/
Meditation for posttraumatic stress: Systematic review and meta-analysis (2018). Lara Hilton, Alicia Ruelaz Maher, Benjamin Colaiaco, Eric Apaydin, Melony E Sorbero, Marika Booth, Roberta M Shanman, Susanne Hempel. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27537781/
A comparison of mindfulness-based stress reduction and an active control in modulation of neurogenic inflammation (2013). Melissa A.Rosenkranz, Richard J.Davidson, Donal G.MacCoon, John F.Sheridan, Ned H.Kalin, Antoine Lutza. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0889159112004758
This self-care health hack is from Superfied nutritional therapy expert, Valentina Cartago
Find your foods with Superfied