Dr. Sternberg joins Arthritis Today with a regular column exploring the connection between mind and body.

The fragrance of the Greek tzatziki, dolmades and moussaka dishes my neighbors brought me shortly after I moved to Washington, D.C., made me feel warm and at home. I was particularly down at that time – my mother had just died and, recently diagnosed with inflammatory arthritis, I still had pain and swelling in my joints despite treatment with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs. And here was a couple I had never met bringing me delicious and nurturing Greek food similar to the Romanian dishes my mother had cooked when I was a child. 

Food can be healthful for not only its nutritional value but also its emotional value. Both aspects can promote healing.

Perhaps it was the feeling of familiarity from the food that made me comfortable enough to accept my neighbors’ invitation to Crete soon after I met them. There, I feasted on Mediterranean food rich in olive oil, seafood and fresh vegetable dishes – including an eggplant salad like my mother made, called vinete, which we ate almost every day when I was a child. 

I was eating large quantities of these foods, and yet my figure was getting trimmer, almost certainly because I was swimming and walking every day, and not eating hamburgers and french fries, as I had been in Washington. The pain in my joints began to ease. 

Many ingredients in this diet – both tangible and intangible – could contribute to reducing inflammation, from antioxidants in fresh vegetables and omega-3s in seafood to a chemical similar to ibuprofen in fresh pressed olive oil. The fact that I was eating food that brought back the warm and comforting feelings of childhood, and was surrounded by friends, also could have contributed to my energy and sense of well-being. 

I had been exhausted and burnt out after years of long-distance caretaking during my mother’s illness. In burnout, stress hormones that had been switched on too high become depleted. One is cortisol, a natural form of cortisone that shuts off inflammation in the body. When cortisol is depleted or tissues become resistant to it, as happens in burnout, autoimmune diseases can be triggered. 

Eating something pleasurable – especially in good company – triggers brain chemicals that promote physiological healing. Scent molecules spark an electrical signal to the brain, and if you associate the scent with positive emotion, anti-pain endorphin molecules are released in the brain. Eating a tasty food results in the release of the nerve chemical of desire, dopamine. Digesting a satisfying meal activates the brain’s relaxation response, releasing the anti-stress chemical, acetylcholine. Together, these chemicals reduce the stress response, improve mood and promote physiological mechanisms important in healing. 

The company of friends also triggers reward pathways in the brain, and many studies show that social support is important in reducing stress and improving health. 

So when you are feeling stressed, take time to slow down, share a meal with friends and savor the happy memories that flavors bring you. By doing so, you will reduce your stress response and give your immune system a chance to reset and heal.

Romanian Family Recipes

The recipes for eggplant salad, vinete, and Romanian stuffed grape leaves, sarmale, are from a family cookbook that my brother-in-law, Don Petzold, put together, based on my mother's and his family's recipes. These two are my mother's, Ghitta Sternberg.