The #1 thing necessary for good digestion is likely the number one thing the majority of people are not able to make happen. Since digestion begins in the brain, it is critical our brain is in the right state in the first place, prior to taking the first bite. So, what is the #1 thing you should do for good digestion? RELAX! Eat every meal or snack in a relaxed, calm state and peace of mind.
Okay, just how many of you think I’m crazy because of that last statement? Well, before you sign off, hear me out! It is really very important to be in a relaxed state when we eat. This calm state we should be eating in is actually a part of our body’s physiology that we simply can’t ignore if we want good digestion. Next, I’ll move on to the technical stuff for a minute and then my tips will follow……
What on earth are a parasympathetic state and autonomic nervous system? (Warning; I’m about to get a little bit technical, so hang in with me for a few paragraphs).
Let’s first start with the autonomic nervous system (ANS for short). The ANS is the part of the nervous system responsible for the control of our involuntary bodily functions. These are the functions that happen and are regulated through our nerves without us even being aware they are going on. Functions such as our glands doing their job, smooth muscle tissue, and our cardiac muscle. The ANS is divided into two components completely opposite to one another, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. Our sympathetic nervous system is active during stress, it’s basically our body’s stress response.
Our parasympathetic nervous system has many more specific functions. The parasympathetic system of nerves is concerned with nourishing, healing and the regeneration of the body. It is concerned with rebuilding the body. Its nerves stimulate digestion through our saliva glands, a very necessary first step in this north-to-south process. These nerves also stimulate the organs of elimination. These organs include the liver, pancreas, stomach and intestines. Additionally, it is responsible for many other functions that are not a priority during stress. For example, in perceived danger the body is not going to want to rest, sleep or have sex, that will not be a priority. The parasympathetic systems job is to help us remain calm, recharge and keep us balanced.
As you can see now, digestion only works when we are relaxed. It cannot function in a stressed out/rush sympathetic state. The gastric enzymes and juices cannot be released when we are in ‘fight or flight’ mode. In that mode, cortisol is released and our parasympathetic system will stop. What happens is, all your energy goes to your brain and your muscles so your brain can think clearly and your muscles will be able to follow that and act and get you out of the dangerous situation your body perceives you to be in.
Getting into a state where you are able to relax before you eat is critical. A lot of us do not do this. We are too busy. We get too hungry by the time we eat and we eat in a hurry. We eat on the run or in the car or eat our lunch at our desks at work. Regardless of this commonly accepted behavior, we have to relearn these habits and focus on making meal times more leisurely and relaxed. If this habit is not instilled or practiced the body will not be able to produce enough saliva or the necessary stomach acid to properly digest proteins. Another issue facing our culture, low stomach acid.
Once we are relaxed and we know that a meal is coming, we perceive the food we are about to eat and the sight and smell of food triggers the salivary glands to begin producing saliva. Saliva is necessary for the initial stages of proper food breakdown, it also helps to lessen the burden on the stomach and the pancreas.
Most people are not even aware that relaxed eating is even necessary. Life is rush, rush, rush. As a mom of four boys, I’m all too familiar with the hectic lifestyle most Americans face. We do not allow enough time for eating a nice leisurely meal because our schedules are jammed packed with activities. However, it is critical we take this into some serious consideration, this whole business of relaxed eating.
If we cannot relax, we cannot properly digest. If we do not properly digest our food in our stomachs, the food can rot and putrefy. This mal-digested food can then cause a reflux or backward flow into the esophagus. Or, it will stay longer in the stomach and begin to degenerate. Thereby causing discomfort and uncomfortable symptoms. Putrefaction produces organic acids that hurt the mucosal lining of the stomach, allowing micro-organisms such as h-pylori to exist. Undigested foods also are detrimental to the health of the small intestine and much more. Also read: Digestion 101 & What Can Go Wrong In Digestion?
The parasympathetic nervous system, when activated by rest, relaxation and happy thoughts, is essential for balanced living and for all healing. Moving into a healthy parasympathetic state, and staying there as much of the time as possible, helps heal all health conditions, both physical and emotional ones as well. So, what are some ways one can put this all into practice? I know I personally need to remind myself of this very thing on a daily basis. Let’s move onto some practical tips to put this all in place…..
Relaxed Eating For Optimal Digestion ~ 5 Tips
1. Plan your meals & schedule the time. Don’t wait until the last minute and eat when you are very tired and hungry. Make the time for breakfast lunch or dinner so that you are not in a rush. For example, my son played football this fall and we would eat dinner rather late when his games were over. I made sure dinner was already prepared so when we got home we could sit down and eat. Another example; I don’t eat my breakfast until my kids leave for school in the morning. Instead I make sure they have a nice breakfast as leisurely as possible with enough time before they run out the door. Once they are gone, I can finally relax. Take a look at your own life situation and come up with strategies so you aren’t rushing. If you have no other choice, say at lunchtime during workdays -find a meal that is simple and easy to digest like a smoothie or some soup. (More info. here: Healthy Meal Planning Principles).
2. Set the stage. This is both mentally and practically. Try to have meals at regular times for your family so they know what to expect. Set the table, maybe try to have one pleasant addition to the table, such as; flowers, a candle, pretty placemats or maybe even some nice music playing. My kids tend to fight a lot if I don’t prep them in creative ways. Sometimes I let them play card games or question games at the table or even have a stuffed animal brunch party. Or even a picnic on the living room floor to watch a fun family movie together. Whatever makes them happy and at peace. This may look different for everyone and every meal time, the idea is to consider how to make the meal time more calming and enjoyable.
3. Practice gratefulness & focus on the positive. For some, this may mean a prayer before the meal starts or joining hand and giving thanks. For others, it may mean a moment of quiet pause and reflection before the meal begins. Maybe thanking the chef or asking each person present to share one thing good that happened that day. Or even have each member at the meal write a note of something that makes them happy -we keep a memory jar near our dinner table. No matter what your preferred method – try to include this a part of your meal times, even if you eat alone. I like to breathe deeply and focus on how glad I am I can take the time to eat a delicious healthy meal.
4. Chew your food, thoroughly. I cannot stress the importance of adequate chews per bite. Try this game at your next meal. Ask everyone to take a deep breath, then take a bite of food and put the fork down. Chew that bite 30 times or more. If you can’t fathom 30 chews start with 10 really slow relaxed chews. If kids are involved make it a little fun competition to get them more into it. You may be surprised how hard it is to chew one bite 30 times. If that is the case for you, you clearly need more practice at chewing (and quite possibly needed to eat sooner than you had and may have low blood sugar, but that’s another topic for another time).
5. Relax. Include time after the meal to chill out for a bit. Perhaps a nice cup of tea, my boys love a cup of tea and they will relax to enjoy it. This is hard when you have places to go and things to do. Regardless, try to add the time necessary to at least not rush off to busy yourself -remember, stress does not allow you to digest your food and you will end up suffering for it later! Think about how nice it is to eat dinner out at a restaurant and enjoy leisurely conversation after the meal with no place to go. Isn’t it so relaxing? Don’t you feel so good when you get that opportunity?
I realize that all of these things may not always be realistic, however, they can become habits that benefit your overall health immensely. It’s a matter of renewing your mind with the knowledge of how your digestive system operates and practicing mindfulness and calmness. Not always easy, I know -but possible!
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