How to Eat! (Properly, for Your Best Digestion).
First I questioned your ability to breathe, and now this?! Health can be pretty simple, and it all starts with the basics, my friends.
It may be hard to believe that you don't know quite how to eat, but so many people do not provide the ideal conditions for digestion. Inhaling food on the run whilst talking on the phone does not do the body good. Today I am not going to talk about what to eat, but how to eat.
But let's start with why.
The goal is to engage the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) for optimal digestion. The PNS is the "rest and digest" state. This is a calm and relaxed state (hence "rest), the opposite of the stressful, tense sympathetic nervous system ("fight or flight"/stress response). One of the major functions of this state is to digest food. If this nervous state is engaged, proper digestion is more likely to ensue. Have you ever experienced loose stools when you were nervous? That's because the sympathetic nervous system was engaged due to your nervousness, and it does not do digestion well. The same can be true for someone who experiences chronic anxiety, with chronic digestive upset.
Another reason to engage the PNS is that cortisol released during the stress response can contribute to opening the gap junctions (tight barrieris between the cells) in your gut, which can lead to food sensitivities and digestive symptoms. This contributes to a condition called Leaky Gut, which causes a lot of inflammation and may be the root of many autoimmune diseases and gastrointestinal disorders. So reducing cortisol (stress hormone) can keep those gap junctions tight and keep you digesting properly.
Also, in a sympathetic response your body is not secreting the gastric juices needed to digest food, as it's not supposed to be digesting in that state. Parasympathetic response encourages the proper digestive secretions. Have you ever eaten when you're running around and felt like your food just sat at the top of your stomach, maybe even making you mildly nauseous? There were minimal signals to the body telling it "hey, we're going to eat now!", so its stomach acid game was weak. There is a wonderful herb called Gentiana lutea that stimulates the hydrochloric acid in your stomach, your pancreatic enzymes, as well as bile release. In addition, it is also a mild nervine (calms the nervous system), and I don't think that's a coincidence!
So, have I made the case for you needing to chill out (in general, but especially when you are eating)? I hope so.
Here are some very simple ways to eat properly:
Take a deep breath (or a few of them!) before eating, to engage the PNS and really set your intention to eating for that moment.
Sit down, dedicate time to nourishing yourself, be present with it. Don't be standing or moving.
No TV or computer or reading- i.e. No distractions. Obviously I am not telling you to eat in silence, sans humans, everyday, but try to keep controllable distractions to a minimum in order to keep your focus on the delicious task at hand.
Eat slowly and mindfully. Chew each bite thoroughly, remember that the mechanical breakdown of food is the first step in digestion. Focus on all the flavours, textures, sensations that come with your meal. .
Drink minimal fluids with your meal, if possible, as it dilutes stomach acid. You can drink a half hour before or an hour (the longer the better) after.
If you have poor digestion, try having all food at least slightly cooked. Raw food (especially when it's cold outside) is extremely difficult to assimilate when digestion is weakened.
Manage your stress in general! The constant flood of cortisol in an ultra-stressed life means it's really hard to drop to a normal level when you're eating.
As you can see, these are very basic changes that can greatly improve your digestion. In fact, not only will your digestion improve, but it will also help you feel calmer and less overwhelmed, more present and grounded. Furthermore, you'll get to enjoy your food more because you'll be paying more attention to it!
We didn't talk about what to eat in this blog, as that's a whole other topic. The interesting thing is that you may be eating the healthiest, most nourishing food, but if your stress response is constantly engaged, you may not be absorbing all that goodness! So managing how you eat is extremely important.
Both stress and digestion are focuses in my practice, so if you need any support with either, I am always here to help :)