How Stress & Mindless Eating Affect Our Digestion & Health: Ways to Improve Your Eating Habits

Updated: Feb 6, 2020

The Digestive System

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 sympathet