Feeding Grief: How To Eat When Coping With Loss

Jayne Reynolds

I am a Board Certified Holistic Nutritionist® passionate about restoring the body's health, balance, and wellbeing. I get down to the root cause of what's happening in the body so that it can be addressed instead of chasing symptoms.
Published: June 28, 2023

Grief hit me like a 2×4 this week. I felt angry,
tearful, irrational, and withdrawn.

We lost a friend. He was 38, in the prime of life, generous, kind, invested in others, an avid sports fan, and often the life and soul of any gathering. He had so much life ahead of him that I couldn’t reconcile the senselessness of it all.

He’s the 4th friend to pass away this month and while the other three were in their later years and in poor health, it hasn’t made the process much easier.

Compounded by empty nesting, changes at work, my grandmother’s passing, and now these recent losses, the last few months have been riddled with grief.

Understanding Grief

No matter what the loss looks like, the death of a loved one, the passing of a pet, an injury and the ensuing loss of independence, a job that doesn’t look the way you thought it would, or a relationship that didn’t work out, you’ve probably experienced grief in some shape or form.

It is a complex emotion that can show up physically and psychologically. It can leave you flat, empty, and emotionless; angry and vengeful, depressed or anxious, and ruminating on the situation asking all the “what if’s.”

Grief can take a toll on your health.

It can:

  • increase your risk of a heart attack 21-24 fold within the first 24 hours of loss
  • raise your stress hormone, cortisol
  • disrupt your sleep
  • interfere with your immune system
  • affect thyroid function and lung health
  • impact your digestive health

Comfort Foods Can Make Things Worse

When bereavement shows up, it’s usually accompanied by a fridge full of casserole dishes delivered by well-intentioned friends and relatives. After all, who doesn’t want to drown their sorrows in the traditional comfort foods of pasta, cheese, bread rolls, and ice cream?

The problem is that processed carbs and high-sugar, dairy-laden foods don’t promote healing.

They often:

  • increase inflammation
  • dysregulate blood sugar (which contributes to heart problems, depression, and sleep disruptions)
  • interfere with the immune system
  • increase congestion in the lungs

Feeding Grief

So then the question remains, can we support our body nutritionally in a way that helps us process our grief in a healthy way?

As a mental health nutritionist, I’ve learned that the foods we eat can play an important role in how we cope with grief.

The Role of Nutrition in Grief

Although it may seem trivial in the face of such a powerful emotion, nutrition is incredibly important when it comes to dealing with grief. The right foods can help support your emotional and physical well-being during this difficult time.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, grief and feeling like you can’t let go of things, are all connected to the health of your lungs, thyroid, and large intestines. In TCM, your skin, sinuses, and immune system are all connected to these organs too. To support these three organs, we recommend including foods that are rich in these nutrients:

  • Vitamins: A, D, E, and K
  • Mineral: Zinc
  • Probiotics
  • Amino Acids: L-Glutamine, DPA, 5HTP, and N Acetyl Cysteine
  • Antioxidant: Glutathione
  • Herbals: Licorice Root and Astragalus Root
  • Homeopathy: Ignatia Amara

Addressing Grief With Nutrition

Some of the ways that nutrition can help address the physical symptoms of grief include:

  • Reducing inflammation: Inflammation is a common symptom of grief, and eating a diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods can help counteract this. Some examples of anti-inflammatory foods include leafy greens, berries, and healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids. Sugar drives inflammation so try and keep your added sugars down to less than 8 grams per day.
  • Boosting sleep quality: Grief can make it hard to sleep, and lack of sleep can exacerbate sadness and anxiety. Eating foods that promote healthy sleep, such as magnesium-rich foods like nuts, seeds, and dark chocolate, can be helpful. (There are a number of supplements that can also help with sleep. Let me know if you’d like more information about this.)
  • Supporting the immune system: Stress can weaken the immune system, making it more vulnerable to illness. Eating foods rich in vitamin C, A, and zinc and taking vitamin D, can help support your immune system during this challenging time. Bell peppers, broccoli, strawberries, papaya, and citrus are all rich in vitamin C. Carrots, calf’s liver, and spinach are full of vitamin A. Zinc is found in calf’s liver, grass-fed beef, lamb, pumpkin, and sesame seeds. Vitamin D is found in shrimp, sardines, cod, and eggs but mostly from spending a little time in the sunshine.
  • Eat healthy carbs: Your thyroid produces energy and it needs insulin to convert T4 to active T3. A healthy insulin response is triggered by eating healthy carbohydrates. Sticking to a low-carb diet can be just as detrimental as overloading on processed carbs. To support your thyroid, include sweet potatoes, beans, quinoa, whole grains, brown rice, oats, vegetables, and low-glycemic fruits like berries and apples.

Supplements That Alleviate Grief

  • N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC): NAC has been studied for its ability to relieve depression. NAC also helps reduce inflammation in your lungs. It stops infections from settling and reduces excess mucus. This all-purpose amino acid may also protect heart function and heart health, and reduce oxidative damage to your heart.
  • D-Phenylalanine (DPA): Endorphins help our body cope with emotional and physical pain and often alleviate loneliness, grief, and the tears associated with them. Chronic stress, like the kind brought on by the loss of a loved one, easily depletes your endorphins. A high-protein diet can help restore them and DPA helps prevent your endorphins from degrading. It’s a bit like a hug in a bottle.
  • Astragalus Root: Astragalus is another nutrient that improves heart and lung function. It also protects the immune system, strengthens the body, and improves resilience.
  • Ignatia Amara: This homeopathic remedy is the go-to for loss, sorrow, and acute grief. If you feel like you can’t express your grief, are stuck with a lump in your throat, or prefer to cry alone or experience angry outbursts over the little things, Ignatia will be the perfect fit.
  • 5HTP: Grief and low serotonin (a neurotransmitter associated with a positive outlook and emotional flexibility) have similar symptoms: depression, anxiety, fear, obsessive thoughts, anger, irritation, disturbed sleep, and cravings for substances (like sweets and alcohol) to fill the emotional void. A little 5HTP could be helpful but if you are already taking an antidepressant or anti-migraine med, you should talk to your healthcare professional before including this supplement.

Final Thoughts

Grief is a challenging and complex emotion, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for dealing with it. However, by focusing on your nutrition and eating a healthy, well-balanced diet, you can support your body through this time and give yourself the tools you need to cope with grief in a healthy way.

If you are supporting someone on their grief journey, think about the type of foods you provide to help them fill their fridge. Healthy comforting recipes like these may be helpful.

Remember, it’s important to be gentle with yourself during this time and reach out to friends and family or a mental health expert if grief becomes too overwhelming.

For more information or to connect with me, you can make an appointment to chat here.


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