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I’ve had hundreds of clients over the years with digestive challenges and pains, many of whom had gobs of medical intervention, testing, poking and prodding – only to be told that “nothing was wrong.” This is one of my favorite medical diagnoses. Oddly enough, a vast majority of our digestive woes become medical mysteries simply because science often has the strange habit of missing the obvious. And this is where a little clever sleuthing and some simple science comes in to save the day.

I’d like to share with you a favorite section from my best selling book, The Slow Down Diet, that highlights the easy and elegant clinical solution to so many of our digestive complaints. Once you see the beauty of this hidden science, you’ll have the secret to helping yourself and others transform digestive metabolism.

Let me know what you think:

The Stress Metabolism Connection

The key to understanding the stress metabolism is the central nervous system (CNS). The portion of the CNS that exerts the greatest influence on gastrointestinal function is called the autonomic nervous system (ANS). This aspect of the nervous system is responsible for getting your stomach churning, the enzymatic secretions in the digestive process flowing, and keeping the dynamic process of nutrient absorption into the bloodstream on the move. The ANS also tells your body when not to be in digesting mode, such as when there’s no food in your belly or when you’re in fight-or-flight response.

Two subdivisions of the ANS help it accomplish its dual task of digestive arousal and digestive inhibition: the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches. The sympathetic branch activates the stress response and suppresses digestive activity. The parasympathetic branch relaxes the body and activates digestion. It might be helpful to think of these two parts of the nervous system as on-and-off switches.

Simply put, the same part of our brain that turns on stress turns off digestion. And conversely, the part of the brain that turns on the relaxation response turns on full, healthy digestive power. Eating healthy food is only half of the story of good nutrition. Being in the ideal state to digest and assimilate food is the other half.

Here’s a favorite client story of mine that will help make things a little more practical when it comes to the stress metabolism connection:

Chen, a charismatic forty-six-year-old doctor of Chinese medicine, was plagued by nagging digestive upset despite overall great health and a vast knowledge of natural healing. He felt that maybe it was time to look at his diet and requested my help. When I asked some basic questions about his eating habits, I was quite surprised by the answer. Chen would stop at McDonalds on his way to work and eat two Egg McMuffins for breakfast in the car while rushing through city traffic. For lunch he’d zip to the same McDonalds and eat two Big Macs in the car as he drove back to the office. After work, he ate two slices of pizza. Chen informed me that he wanted to feel better but he wasn’t willing to cook, bring a lunch to work, eat vegetables, or give up McDonalds. Go figure.

I told him I suspected I could actually help him despite the impossible limitations he was giving me to work with. Here is the simple strategy to which Chen reluctantly agreed. He had to eat his Big Macs while the car was parked and take twenty minutes to enjoy them slowly and sensually. I asked him to do the same with his Egg McMuffins at breakfast. He needed to take time to slow down with food, and with life. He needed to breathe deeply before, during, and after his meals.

Two weeks later Chen called me in an excited state with some wonderful news to tell. First, his digestive symptoms had disappeared. And then he said, “You won’t believe this, really, but I hate Big Macs. I’ve been eating them for fifteen years and I can’t stand them. Have you ever tried to savor a Big Mac? You can’t. You have to eat it fast and smother it with lots of ketchup to hide the taste.”

Chen was not a relaxed eater. He had plenty of patients to see throughout the day and seemingly little time for self-nourishment. The simple act of taking time to slow down and eat shifted him from sympathetic to parasympathetic dominance, and his digestive upset quickly disappeared. When this happened, his body wisdom was finally able to give him feedback about his food choices, and he subsequently gave up Big Macs naturally and effortlessly. He didn’t need to use his willpower to resist a favorite food or exert mental force to make better choices. All he did was savor a Big Mac.

Are you beginning to understand the metabolic power of relaxation? Can you see how eating in the natural and necessary state of parasympathetic dominance can yield breakthroughs with food and metabolism?

Warm regards,
Marc David
Founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating
© Institute For The Psychology of Eating, All Rights Reserved, 2014


The Slow Down Diet: Eating for Pleasure, Energy, and Weight Loss

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  • Great blog. Stress is part of the healthcare….or better referred to a sickcare crisis in our nation. People going haywire…100 m.p.h… 1,000,000 directions is not an ideal way to thrive and enjoy life.

  • Randi

    You Rock Out!! You told that story to us the first IIN weekend ….and I have thus repeated that story to many a client on an as needed basis – which means I’ve told almost everyone. More importantly THANK YOU Marc for having a most amazing impact in my life and the way in which I eat today.

  • Marc, I enjoyed this post for two reasons: 1) Your writing style makes “common sense” nutrition appealing, and 2) your knowledge of complex things doesn’t prevent you from sharing the simplest of solutions: slow down. Thank you for both!

  • Marc, your article resonates with what was recently shared with me by my longtime friend and therapist!

    I’ve lived with digestive woes for longer than I wish to think of and in, once again, addressing those issues it was suggested to me that it, in part, is simply my mind over the matter 🙂 I get this. Even though I eat healthfully, when I become stressed at the table, my digestive tract suffers horribly. I literally feel it shut down.

    I have found that, on occasion, I may have to excuse myself and either put the plate away until a later time or simply relocate myself while eating. I do suffer from some residual PTSD, so at times it is merely the manner in which someone might be delivering their message that initiates the stress.

    I am diligently working at overcoming the “burn out” of my flight-and-fight mechanism, which seems to have a mind of it’s own at times! It is from years of an automated response to continual stressful stimuli, which are no longer (for the most part) present.

    Your explanation of the ANS gives me a clear visual of what exactly is taking place in my body!

    Thank you for sharing from your wealth of knowledge and I shall be most interested in your book, “The Slow Down Diet”!

  • Andrea

    Thanks Marc, for your unwavering approach in a time of fads, trends, magic powders, potions, and pills. I was lucky enough to have you as my teacher for a certification I earned through the Spencer Institute two years ago. I learned SO much that I am still learning!

  • Such incredible and empowering wisdom and truth! This book will always be at the top of my favorites — thank you!

  • Ann

    Great story. Truly exemplifies the body’s/spirits intelligence and that if we slow down, it allows us to connect to that inner wisdom.

  • So refreshing to see something pragmatic and non-preachy! I am a therapist who deals with many clients with all kinds of eating issues. This is perfect. I shared on FB and twitter…thanks.

  • I created a “mindful Dorito” meditation 10+ years ago that I use in my classes. Like Big Macs, Doritoes are meant to be consumed in great haste. when I train people to sit still, and fully experience what they’re eating, the Dorito becomes quite unsavory (and that’s being nice about it!).
    Recently, a director of a childcare center shared with me the fact that she has not had a Dorito ever since I led the Dorito meditation in her center over 10 years ago! Slowing down and really being with your food is powerful.

  • Emily

    Great post, Marc!

    I’ve been researching the link of metabolism with digestion and your post helped me have the aha! moment I was looking for…the stress component in metabolism. Chen’s story speaks volumes!

  • Christine

    Thank you for sharing Chen’s story, I love your approach. What a simple yet amazing way to get people to realize how food and stress are affecting their health. Awesome article!

  • Marc David

    Hi all, Marc here.
    Thank you all for your kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed my post about Chen – that incident was a true eye opener for me.

    Warm regards,

    Marc David
    Founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating

  • Suzan I Nashashibi Bsc RNutr

    I find this info accurate and very useful .it sheds a very important logical explanation on stressful eating pattern and how they clog metabolism and eventually people would rapidly gain weight as metabolism is dysfunctional rather than optimized -We always knew there was a link somewhere but u just clarified the exact pathway now we just need to pass this info to our obese and overweight clients maybe if they fully understand the pathway leading to impaired metabolism they will be able to follow healthier eating strategies convinced and aware why are they doing it

About The Author
Marc David

Marc David is the Founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, a leading visionary, teacher and consultant in Nutritional Psychology, and the author of the classic and best-selling works Nourishing Wisdom and The Slow Down Diet. His work has been featured on CNN, NBC and numerous media outlets. His books have been translated into over 10 languages, and his approach appeals to a wide audience of eaters who are looking for fresh, inspiring and innovative messages about food, body and soul. He lectures internationally, and has held senior consulting positions at Canyon Ranch Resorts, the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, the Johnson & Johnson Corporation, and the Disney Company. Marc is also the co-founder of the Institute for Conscious Sexuality and Relationship.