Updated: Feb 6, 2020
We all have heard the saying "You are what you eat," and I will also add: "We are HOW we eat." So what do both of these statements actually mean? Understanding the basics of digestion is crucial to developing healthy eating habits. Knowing what the body does with the food we consume and what it needs to function and stay healthy can mean a world of difference to our overall health.
I know this from the work I do with my nutrition clients. I witness them positively transform their lives every week, simply because they become educated about their own bodies and what they can do to heal themselves (learn more about holistic nutritional therapy) . I watch their fatigue, brain fog, sugar cravings, poor digestion, IBS, inflammation, mood issues, and chronic health issues melt away due to simple dietary changes. Why do I say "simple?" Because intuitive and common sense is simple: a healthy diet is and should be intuitive, natural, and straightforward.
The truth is that there aren't any shortcuts to healthy digestion or health in general. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either very misinformed or lying. Fad diets, quick fixes, extreme elimination of foods are not sustainable and are oftentimes unhealthy and even dangerous. Many of these diets subject the body and mind to a lot of stress, which is counterproductive to our health and weight loss in the long run. But this article isn't about that; it's about providing you with a few simple solutions to jumpstart your healthy eating habits and counter stressful and mindless eating.
Digestion Is a North to South Process
Where does digestion actually begin? It begins in the brain! Yes, in the brain. Think of the last time you were hungry and preparing some food. You were looking at the ingredients, arranging them, and preparing them for consumption. Seeing and touching the food caused salivation or perhaps your stomach to rumble. Whether you knew it or not, the process of digestion began the minute you saw your food, smelled it, and touched it. The body began to produce the necessary digestive juices and enzymes to prepare for the breakdown of the food you were about to consume. So it all started with your brain, a very important organ in the digestive process and one we have forgotten to include in the modern era, due to stress and the hustle and bustle of every day life.
We are a very busy and chronically stressed society, running from one place to the next, eating on the run, eating in the car, eating while watching TV or arguing with others, eating while we are on our phones or other electronic devices, eating too fast, and the list goes on and on. We do this day in and day out, wondering why we have digestive issues, weight gain, and other health problems.
So, it is important for us to understand that how we eat is just as important as what we eat. When we truly begin to understand that digestion begins in the brain, that sets the tone for the rest of the digestive process. Then we begin to change the way we interact with our food.
A Stressed State, the Doom of Digestion
Our brain plays an important role in our ability to properly process our food. In order for the body to properly prepare itself for digestion, the mind needs to be present and in a relaxed state. Without getting too technical, the body needs to be in a parasympathetic (relaxed) or "rest and digest" state to produce saliva and hydrochloric acid. These are two very important digestive fluids that aid in proper digestion. They help with the breakdown of carbohydrates in the mouth and protein, carbohydrates, and fats in the stomach. When we are in a stressed state, our body's ability to digest food is greatly diminished.
The body is a very intelligent organism and prioritizes its functions in order of importance. Survival, especially fight or flight, will always be more important to the body, in the immediate moment, than resting and digesting. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes no sense to use precious energy on digestion if you're being chased by a tiger or bear. All the digestive processes stop when we are under stress because the body is preparing itself to fight or flee. It can't do both at the same time for functional reasons.
It's important to note here that we DO NOT digest while in fight or flight - only in rest and digest. So in order for us to properly process our food we must be relaxed, not stressed, angry, or in fear. What's even more interesting is that our limbic system (deep inside the brain) doesn't distinguish between being chased by a bear or getting into an argument with our friend. When we are under any kind of stress, the mind and body respond essentially the same way they have for thousands of years.
When the mind is in a stressed state, the sympathetic nervous system is activated, and it is responsible for preparing the body for fight or flight, not rest and digest. Many things in our day-to-day life trigger this state: traffic, bad weather, arguments, deadlines, feeling overwhelmed, negative self talk, financial worries, criticism, even media such as movies, the news, or social media.
We are frequently in a state of stress and way too often in this state while eating. Look at the diagram below which shows just some of the functions that occur when we are stressed or in a sympathetic state. Look closely at how the organs respond to even a small amount of stress.
Here's a brief explanation of some of the functions listed in the chart above:
Stress inhibits salivation- we stop producing saliva and salivary amylase that aid in the pre-breakdown of carbohydrates, putting additional stress on the digestive tract.
Stress inhibits peristalsis- inhibits muscular contractions that allow the digestive system to move the food through the various organs, meaning that food sits and stops being digested.
Stress inhibits secretion- No secretion of the hydrochloric acid, bile salts, and other gastric juices that break down the food into their appropriate molecules for proper absorption. This means that our food just sits in the stomach or gut and ferments. This alone causes many health issues and unpleasant digestive symptoms, from acid reflux to irritable bowl and many symptoms in between. It is important to note that undigested food tears through the mucosal lining in the small intestine and destroys the microvilli. This means the body absorbs less of the essential nutrients it needs, and we develop leaky gut which is linked to a host of health and autoimmune issues.
Stress stimulates glucose and adrenaline release- this happens to give us quick energy, but messes up our insulin and glucose regulation cycle. This means that we aren't able to regulate our energy sources, often experience fatigue, and end up having sugar cravings to increase our energy.
In short, stress - even small amounts of stress - significantly slows down or stops most of the essential digestive functions, causing digestive discomfort, bowel issues, acid reflux, leaky gut, and more, leading to longer term health problems.
So, what if I told you that much of our digestive and health issues could be solved if we stopped eating our foods in a stressed state? What if that alone could help you lose weight, gain energy, and naturally help you make better nutrition decisions? Let's briefly take a look at how well digestion works in a relaxed or parasympathetic state.
A Relaxed State, Digestion's Best Friend
When we are in a non-stressed or relaxed state, most of our blood flow is in the core of our body, allowing digestion to function optimally. Looking at the diagram below, we can see that many of the functions that were inhibited by stress, as shown in the diagram above, are now functioning, allowing the digestive process to work naturally.
If you look closely you will notice that many of the digestive functions that occur in a parasympathetic state do not occur in the sympathetic state. The bullet points below explain some of the information in the diagram above:
Stimulates salivation- allowing for the pre-breakdown of carbohydrates aiding the digestive tract so that it doesn't have to work so hard.
Stimulates peristalsis- so that our food can be churned and moved from one organ to the next for proper absorption and elimination.
Stimulates secretion- of hydrochloric acid, bile salts, and other gastric juices that breakdown the food into their appropriate molecules for proper absorption. When we absorb the essential nutrients, our bodies can heal and eliminate toxins effectively, and we can produce the right neurotransmitters and hormones.
Something as simple as eating in a relaxed state can have profound positive impact on our immediate and long term health. Now that you have some knowledge about the negative effects stress has on the digestive process and what actually happens in the body during digestion in both a sympathetic and parasympathetic state, let's make a plan of simple things to do and not do while eating.
How to Eat to Optimize Digestion and Long Term Health
You can follow these simple steps to maximize on your own digestive and overall health. Remember, though, it's not about perfection - it is about making mindful effort to implement these actions so that you can begin to heal and improve your health. And even if you consider yourself super healthy already, there's always room for wellness improvement in all of our lives... mine included.
Sit down and eat your food; this allows the body to relax.
Turn off the television and put away the cell phone so that you can see, smell, and taste your food to stimulate the secretion of saliva and other gastric juices that aid the digestive process.
Breathe between bites and chew your food slowly. This also prevents us from overeating and makes eating much more satisfying.
Chew each bite 20-30 times. Your food should be in a liquid form by the time you swallow it. This makes it easier for the stomach to process and break it down further into the right-sized molecules that the body can then absorb.
As you are eating, after the first natural deep breath you take, stop eating and store the rest of the food away. That is the body's natural way of saying that you are full. So as you eat your food, pay attention to that first natural deep breath your body takes, and use it as a signal to stop. If you're not sure, stop eating for a full minute and only resume if you are still hungry.
Eat outdoors as much as possible. Nature is naturally relaxing and it brings us right back to where we started as humans. It's a very grounding experience.
Eat while standing - this prevents the body from being fully relaxed.
Eat while upset or angry, because you are in a fight or flight state and not able to digest the food you are eating.
Distract yourself with electronic devices such as televisions, cell phones, computers, etc. When we do that we are not paying attention to how we are eating, we are not chewing our food properly, and we end up overeating.
Eat in your car or on the run, as this forces us to eat mindlessly.
Work while eating for obvious reasons already covered.
Also avoid having negative conversations while eating because they too put us in a stressed state. Have calm pleasant conversations or eat in silence.
I now challenge you to eat every meal in a relaxed state for the next 30 days and write down your transformation over the next month. Note how your relationship to food changes: how you eat, what you eat, when you eat, how you feel when you eat, what health improvements have occurred as a result. I have yet to see a single individual not improve in some way as a result of eating mindfully. I would love to hear about your journey, so please feel free to comment below or ask any questions. To learn more about holistic nutritional therapy click here.
Basia Toczek, M.A., NTP, ND, CNHP, RYT-200
Certified Life Coach
Certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioner
Certified Natural Health Professional
Registered Yoga and Meditation Teacher