I think we can all agree that eating well is important to our health. Extremely important. But sometimes just as important as what you eat, is how you eat. Most of us don't put a lot of thought into it, we just get the food in our body and move on. However a lot of digestive complaints, and subsequent health issues, stem from improper digestion caused by the way we eat.
Our bodies do a lot of work when we consume food. They release hormones, secrete enzymes, move muscles, and communicate to other cells to digest the food, assimilate nutrients, and store energy from our meal. All of this happens without any conscious participation from us. This happens thanks to the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The ANS has three branches, enteric, sympathetic, and parasympathetic. We won't get into the enteric nervous system now, but its also really important for digestion.
Our sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our “fight or flight” response. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for reacting to real or perceived stress. That’s right: whether you’re running from a cheetah, or getting yelled at by your boss, your body has many of the same responses. Mainly, your blood gets pumped to your extremities (and away from organs like your stomach) in case you need the extra energy to run. It also releases cortisol and excitatory hormones and neurotransmitters. The take away message for today is: it slows down any processes not necessary for immediate survival, in other words, digestion.
The parasympathetic nervous system is also known as “feed and breed”. It handles those other activities we need to survive in the long term, once that cheetah has gone away. This is the state we want when we are eating and digesting.
So how do we attain this? Doesn’t our body just do it naturally? Not necessarily. Our body is constantly taking in information from our environment that will dictate how it reacts. Without getting too much into the physiology of it all, we basically have to create an environment where the body can relax and fully focus on the task at hand, in this case, eating and digesting. Because if we’re running from a cheetah, our body isn’t worried about digesting that meal you just ate. Remember how I said our bodies respond the same to real or perceived stress? Well, guess what. If you’re feeling stressed or upset about something while you eat, your body won’t be focused on digesting your meal either. So when eating right after an argument, while worrying about your loved ones, or even feeling sad or mad about the state of the world, you won’t be optimally digesting your food either.
So, why does all this matter? Just about every client I work with at some point or another complains of some digestive issues, like bloating, gas, constipation, or stomach pains. Certainly food sensitivities, imbalanced gut bacteria, and a variety of other things can cause these symptoms. But how you are eating should be first on the checklist when trying to improve your digestion. It's the easiest to change really, and doesn't even involve a trip to the grocery store or a fancy supplement.
Mindful eating is the solution. It is simply a way of being aware not only of what, but of how you’re eating. Here are some techniques you can try to set yourself up for optimum digestion and assimilation of your food and nutrients.
1. Chew Your Food – Seems so obvious, right? In reality, most people don’t chew their food enough. Chewing mixes the food with digestive enzymes in the saliva and activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Different types of food require different amounts of chewing of course, but try to chew until the food is all soft and blended, no small bits left. You can start by counting your normal amount of chews on the first bite, and then add 5 more on the next, and so on until your food is liquid before swallowing.
2. Pay Attention – So many of us eat distractedly. We eat at the computer, watching TV, while driving texting or doing 17 other things at the same time. While this might seem efficient in terms of saving time, it is totally inefficient for your digestion. When your brain is focused on other things, it can’t fully focus on all of the actions necessary for digestion. The result? Undigested food that can cause bloating, gas, and decrease nutrient absorption. Instead, try to pay attention to your meal. Enjoy the smell of your food, savor the flavors, notice the colors and textures.
3. Be Grateful, Calm and Present - Avoid eating when feeling upset or stressed out. I often suggest to clients to take 3 deep breaths when they first sit down for a meal. Deep breathing helps to calm down the nervous system and relax us. Whether you say grace before or a meal or not, taking a moment to be thankful for even having food in the first place, can help bring yourself into the present moment and allow other worries to fall away. Try to let go of anything nagging you from the past or concerns about the future, and focus on the present moment while you enjoy your meal.
4. Eat Slowly – This is key not only for optimum digestion, but for weight loss as well. It takes 20 minutes for the body to register it is full. The fast food revolution has done as no favors, and certainly normalizing quick meals is one of its drawbacks. Food is meant to be enjoyed and appreciated. If you’re a fast eater, try putting your fork down every 3 bites. If you’re with other people, take time to converse during your meal, taking breaks between bites. Once you start chewing your food more and eating without distraction, meals naturally take longer. But if you’re curious, eat your next meal in typical fashion and time it. Then, try to make the meal after that last 5 minutes longer.
5. Stop Before You’re Full – In Okinawa, Japan, one of the world’s Blue Zones, where its citizens live longer than most, many people practice Hara Hachi Bu. This ancient teaching says to eat until you are 80% full. When you eat slowly enough to notice signs of fullness before you’ve overdone it, not only will you feel better and avoid that uncomfortably full feeling, but you’ll avoid overeating and weight gain from oversized portions.
Becoming more aware of how we're eating really can have profound effects on our health. Give these suggestions a try, and notice how you feel. It may not happen right away, but over time you'll train yourself to eat in a more relaxed, mindful state. You may notice you feel less discomfort after meals, have more energy, or even lose a few pounds. You may also be more aware of how the meal you've had makes you feel, a great tool for eating the foods that are right for your body.
As always, I love hearing feedback from you, so leave a comment! If mindful eating seems impossible, contact me for more support.