Ever wonder what it would be like to have a magic switch to turn your digestion on or off? Imagine if you could actually control your body’s ability to digest, metabolize and assimilate food. Well guess what? You do.
Each of us has an on-off switch for our digestive and metabolic systems, but we know it as our central nervous system. This is our metabolic switch. And depending on how it’s responding to our environment, our thoughts, or our meal will determine if we experience the comfort of being “on” – or the ill effects of feeling “off”.
Our nervous system has 2 primary aspects to it that are crucial to understand to understand:
- The Sympathetic Nervous System – also known as “fight or flight” response and
- The Parasympathetic Nervous System – also knows as “rest and digest” response.
They each have a powerful and essential function, as you might imagine.
Our sympathetic nervous system kicks in whenever we‘re experiencing any kind of real or perceived threat. If fear, real or imagined shows up in your thoughts or environment – being chased by a bear or running late for a plane, or the never ending to-do list full of urgent deadlines — or even judging ourselves for eating all that cake — we activate our Fight/Flight response and shift into a stress response.
As this occurs, our sympathetic nervous system moves our energy and blood flow out to our extremities so that we can fight or flee, escape the situation, or freeze in the presence of our stressor.
When our body shuttles our energy and blood to our arms and legs, however, it also moves it away from our internal organs – including our digestive tract. Digestion is hardly essential when we are fighting for our lives, so, if we find ourselves in a full-tilt stress response – like a bear chasing us – our digestion completely shuts down. Yet even in a moderate or chronic stress response – like our to-do list for the day at work, or our constant self-criticism – our digestive system is still impacted negatively. When we’re living in a state of worry or anxiety, our ability to digest, assimilate and metabolize our food is hugely reduced. It’s all about the brain in our belly!
The reality that our stress response holds great influence over our digestion and metabolism is, one of key principles at work in the field of Eating Psychology. We can have the most wonderfully healthy food on our plate, but if our sympathetic nervous system is activated, then we’re existing in fight or flight mode, and the short of it is: there’s simply is no way that our body can fully assimilate the nutrition that we’re ingesting.
It’s the reality of our biology.
The good news, however, is that we can improve our digestive wellness by simply shifting out of the physiologic stress response and back into parasympathetic nervous system activation.
The activation of our parasympathetic nervous system is also called the “rest and digest” system. It’s our relaxation response. In day-to-day life, we’re so accustomed to being on the go, and few of us take the time to think why everyone’s popping digestive aids or antacids, never suspecting that the way to fix the issue is to stop, slow down and relax a bit more.
The parasympathetic system conserves energy while it slows the heart rate down, increases intestinal activity, opens the blood vessels and allows us to take those deep, calming breaths. When it comes to improving our digestion wellness, the parasympathetic nervous system is where it’s at. But at this point, you might be wondering, how exactly do we get there? How can we help our body shift into rest and digest mode, when our lives are full of stress?
Here at the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, we often discuss these 3 strategies that will promote digestive wellness by shifting your body into the physiologic relaxation response.
Unless you’re choking or sick, few of us really pay attention to our breath and its connection to our mood and emotions. So before you begin eating, take one minute to breath fully, gently and slowly. Bring yourself to your body, sitting there at the table. Be committed to be being nowhere else and begin breathing with the intention of relaxing and becoming fully present. This is the fastest way to shift our bodies into a more relaxed state. Isn’t it about time we paid more heed to the power of our breath?
2. Slow Down
Imagine shifting your body from 100 miles an hour to 25 miles an hour. In other words, bring it down to an easy coast. So many of us are racing through life and if we can slow down more by sitting down to eat, by being realistic about how many things we can actually get done in a day, by focusing on one task instead of 5 at once, we can shift our body out of fight or flight mode, and into rest and digest mode. Life happens so fast. It deserves our full attention and it deserves it’s full due. Relax. Enjoy the process. There’s no good reason to move so fast that we can’t metabolize our meal. Health is not about speed, it’s all about slow…
3. Enjoy Your Food
When we focus on enjoying our food, we activate our pleasure receptors, we tune into our senses – our sense of taste, touch, smell, are initiated – and this has the positive impact of activating our parasympathetic nervous system. You may have noticed that none of the above suggestions is purely focused on food. What we eat certainly has an impact on our digestive wellness, but it’s not the whole story. Digestive wellness and nutritional healing is much more than just the food and supplements we choose to ingest. Go ahead, see what happens when you add pleasure into the equation
In order for our food to impact our body in the most positive and nourishing way, we have to focus on the deep systemic level of our nervous system. Everything is connected – nothing in our body stands apart
The work we do at the Institute for the Psychology of Eating is not merely about changing people’s diet. It’s about helping people look at all the aspects of who we are as eaters – body, mind, heart, soul and everything else that goes into creating us as the imperfect human beings we are. Sometimes the process is challenging, but it’s always worth it. By understanding the underlying scientific reality of our nervous system and the underpinnings of good digestion, we’re given the tools to improve our overall digestive wellness.
© Institute For The Psychology of Eating, All Rights Reserved, 2014
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