Sources: Nerves And Common Sense
I KNOW a woman who insisted that it was impossible for her to eat
strawberries because they did not agree with her. A friend told her
that that was simply a habit of her mind. Once, at a time when her
stomach was tired or not in good condition for some other reason,
strawberries had not agreed with her, and from that time she had
taken it for granted that she could not eat strawberries. When she
was convinced by her friend that her belief that strawberries did
not agree with her was merely in her own idea, and not actually
true, she boldly ate a plate of strawberries. That night she woke
with indigestion, and the next morning she said "You see, I told you
they would not agree with me."
But her friend answered: "Why, of course you could not expect them
to agree right away, could you? Now try eating them again to-day."
This little lady was intelligent enough to want the strawberries to
agree with her and to be willing to do her part to adjust herself to
them, so she tried again and ate them the next day; and now she can
eat them every day right through the strawberry season and is all
the better for it.
This is the fact that we want to understand thoroughly and to look
out for. If we are impressed with the idea that any one food does
not agree with us, whenever we think of that food we contract, and
especially our stomachs contract. Now if our stomachs contract when
a food that we believe to disagree with us is merely mentioned, of
course they would contract all the more when we ate it. Naturally
our digestive organs would be handicapped by the contraction which
came from our attitude of mind and, of course, the food would appear
not to agree with us.
Take, for instance, people who are born with peculiar prenatal
impressions about their food. A woman whom I have in mind could not
take milk nor cream nor butter nor anything with milk or cream or
butter in it. She seemed really proud of her milk-and-cream
antipathy. She would air it upon all occasions, when she could do so
without being positively discourteous, and often she came very near
the edge of discourtesy. I never saw her even appear to make an
effort to overcome it, and it is perfectly true that a prenatal
impression like that can be overcome as entirely, as can a
personally acquired impression, although it may take a longer time
and a more persistent effort.
This anti-milk-and-cream lady was at work every day over-emphasizing
her milk-and-cream contractions; whereas if she had put the same
force into dropping the milk-and-cream contraction she would have
been using her will to great advantage, and would have helped
herself in many other ways as well as in gaining the ability to take
normally a very healthful food. We cannot hold one contraction
without having its influence draw us into many others. We cannot
give our attention to dropping one contraction without having the
influence of that one effort expand us in many other ways. Watch
people when they refuse food that is passed them at table; you can
see whether they refuse and at the same time contract against the
food, or whether they refuse with no contraction at all. I have seen
an expression of mild loathing on some women's faces when food was
passed which "did not agree with them," but they were quite
unconscious that their expressions had betrayed them.
Now, it is another fact that the contraction of the stomach at one
form of food will interfere with the good digestion of another form.
When cauliflower has been passed to us and we contract against it
how can we expect our stomachs to recover from that contraction in
time to digest perfectly the next vegetable which is passed and
which we may like very much? It may be said that we expand to the
vegetable we like, and that immediately counteracts the former
contraction to the vegetable which we do not like. That is true only
to a certain extent, for the tendency to cauliflower contraction is
there in the back of our brains influencing our stomachs all the
time, until we have actually used our wills consciously to drop it.
Edwin Booth used to be troubled very much with indigestion; he
suffered keenly from it. One day he went to dine with some intimate
friends, and before the dinner began his hostess said with a very
smiling face: "Now, Mr. Booth, I have been especially careful with
this dinner not to have one thing that you cannot digest."
The host echoed her with a hearty "Yes, Mr. Booth, everything that
will come to the table is good for your digestion."
The words made a very happy impression on Mr. Booth. First there was
the kind, sympathetic friendliness of his hosts; and then the strong
suggestion they had given him that their food would agree with him.
Then there was very happy and interesting talk during the whole time
that they were at table and afterward. Mr.. Booth ate a hearty
dinner and, true to the words of his host and hostess, not one
single thing disagreed with him. And yet at that dinner, although
care had been taken to have it wholesome, there were served things
that under other conditions would have disagreed.
While we should aim always to eat wholesome food, it is really not
so much the food which makes the trouble as the attitude we take
toward it and the way we test it.
All the contractions which are made by our fussing about food
interfere with our circulation; the interference with our
circulation makes us liable to take cold, and it is safe to say that
more than half the colds that women have are caused principally by
wrong eating. Somewhat akin to grandmother's looking for her
spectacles when all the time they are pushed to the top of her head
is the way women fuss about their eating and then wonder why it is
that they cannot seem to stand drafts.
There is no doubt but that our food should be thoroughly masticated
before it goes into our stomachs. There is no doubt but that the
first process of digestion should be in our mouths. The relish which
we get for our food by masticating it properly is greater and also
helps toward digesting it truly. All this cannot be over-emphasized
if it is taken in the right way. But there is an extreme which
perhaps has not been thought of and for which happily I have an
example that will illustrate what I want to prove. I know a woman
who was, so to speak, daft on the subject of health. She attended to
all points of health with such minute detail that she seemed to have
lost all idea of why we should be healthy. One of her ways of
over-emphasizing the road to health was a very careful mastication
of her food. She chewed and chewed and chewed and chewed, and the
result was that she so strained her stomach with her chewing that
she brought on severe indigestion, simply as a result of an
overactive effort toward digestion. This was certainly a case of
"vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself, and falls on the other."
And it was not unique.
The over-emphasis of "What shall I eat? How much shall I eat? How
often shall I eat? When shall I eat? How shall I eat?"--all extreme
attention to these questions is just as liable to bring chronic
indigestion as a reckless neglect of them altogether is liable to
upset a good, strong stomach and keep it upset. The woman who chewed
herself into indigestion fussed herself into it, too, by constantly
talking about what was not healthful to eat. Her breakfast, which
she took alone, was for a time the dryest-looking meal I ever saw.
It was enough to take away any one's healthy relish just to look at
it, if he was not forewarned.
Now our relish is one of our most blessed gifts. When we relish our
food our stomachs can digest it wholesomely. When we do not our
stomachs will not produce the secretions necessary to the most
wholesome digestion. Constant fussing about our food takes away our
relish. A gluttonous dwelling upon our food takes away our relish.
Relish is a delicate gift, and as we respect it truly, as we do not
degrade it to selfish ends nor kill it with selfish fastidiousness,
it grows upon us and is in its place like any other fine perception,
and is as greatly useful to the health of our bodies as our keener
and deeper perceptions are useful to the health of our minds.
Then there is the question of being sure that our stomachs are well
rested before we give them any work to do, and being sure that we
are quiet enough after eating to give our stomachs the best
opportunity to begin their work. Here again one extreme is just as
harmful as the other. I knew a woman who had what might be called
the fixed idea of health, who always used to sit bolt upright in a
high-backed chair for half an hour after dinner, and refuse to speak
or to be spoken to in order that "digestion might start in
properly." If I had been her stomach I should have said: "Madam,
when you have got through giving me your especial attention I will
begin my work--which, by the way, is not your work but mine!" And,
virtually, that is what her stomach did say. Sitting bolt upright
and consciously waiting for your food to begin digestion is an
over-attention to what is none of your business, which contracts
your brain, contracts your stomach and stops its work.
Our business is only to fulfill the conditions rightly. The French
workmen do that when they sit quietly after a meal talking of their
various interests. Any one can fulfill the conditions properly by
keeping a little quiet, having some pleasant chat, reading a bright
story or taking life easy in any quiet way for half an hour. Or, if
work must begin directly after eating, begin it quietly. But this
feeling that it is our business to attend to the working functions
of our stomachs is officious and harmful. We must fulfill the
conditions and then forget our stomachs. If our stomachs remind us
of themselves by some misbehavior we must seek for the cause and
remedy it, but we should not on any account feel that the cause is
necessarily in the food we have eaten. It may be, and probably often
is, entirely back of that. A quick, sharp resistance to something
that is said will often cause indigestion. In that case we must stop
resisting and not blame the food. A dog was once made to swallow a
little bullet with his food and then an X-ray was thrown on to his
stomach in order that the process of digestion might be watched by
means of the bullet. When the dog was made angry the bullet stopped,
which meant that the digestion stopped; when the dog was
over-excited in any way digestion stopped. When he was calmed down
it went on again.
There are many reasons why we should learn to meet life without
useless resistance, and the health of our stomachs is not the least.
It would surprise most people if they could know how much
unnecessary strain they put on their stomachs by eating too much. A
nervous invalid had a very large appetite. She was helped twice,
sometimes three times, to meat and vegetables at dinner. She thought
that what she deemed her very healthy appetite was a great blessing
to her, and often remarked upon it, as also upon her idea that so
much good, nourishing food must be helping to make her well. And yet
she wondered why she did not gain faster.
Now the truth of the matter was that this invalid had a nervous
appetite. Not only did she not need one third of the food she ate,
but indeed the other two thirds was doing her positive harm. The tax
which she put upon her stomach to digest so much food drained her
nerves every day, and of course robbed her brain, so that she ate
and ate and wept and wept with nervous depression. When it was
suggested to her by a friend who understood nerves that she would
get better very much faster if she would eat very much less she made
a rule to take only one helping of anything, no matter how much she
might feel that she wanted another. Very soon she began to gain
enough to see for herself that she had been keeping herself ill with
overeating, and it was not many days before she did not want a
Nervous appetites are not uncommon even among women who consider
themselves pretty well. Probably there are not five in a hundred
among all the well-fed men and women in this country who would not
be more healthy if they ate less.
Then there are food notions to be looked out for and out of which
any one can relax by giving a little intelligent attention to the
"I do not like eggs. I am tired of them." "Dear, dear me! I ate so
much ice cream that it made me ill, and it has made me ill to think
of it ever since."
Relax, drop the contraction, pretend you had never tasted ice cream
before, and try to eat a little--not for the sake of the ice cream,
but for the sake of getting that knot out of your stomach.
"But," you will say, "can every one eat everything?"
"Yes," the answer is, "everything that is really good, wholesome
food is all right for anybody to eat."
But you say: "Won't you allow for difference of tastes?"
And the answer to that is: "Of course we can like some foods more
than others, but there is a radical difference between unprejudiced
preferences and prejudiced dislikes."
Our stomachs are all right if we will but fulfill their most simple
conditions and then leave them alone. If we treat them right they
will tell us what is good for them and what is not good for them,
and if we will only pay attention, obey them as a matter of course
without comment and then forget them, there need be no more fuss
about food and very much less nervous irritability.