When our digestion works fine, it’s easy to not even notice it and simply take for granted this magnificent function of the human body. But when digestion is off or troubled, life is not so fun. The miracle of the digestive system is that it can take something that’s completely alien to us – food – and alchemically transform it into the very structure of our cells, tissues, and organs. When the miracle fails though, we need answers. Why is my stomach upset? How come all this heartburn? Why do I feel weak after a meal? And will the discomfort ever go away?
For the most part, the common strategies to improve digestive function are limited to taking various prescription medications, or for those who are naturally inclined they’d likely go for digestive enzymes, probiotics or experiment with making changes in their diet. Unfortunately, there isn’t a gold standard set of protocols that guarantees one can go from poor digestive power to full digestive force. Indeed, in any given week over 60% of the population will complain of some type of digestive upset. Clearly, something’s not working. And the reason why is that there’s a missing ingredient when it comes to empowering digestion.
That missing ingredient is you.
Meaning, when it comes to digestive challenges, medical science has neglected one very simple yet potent physiologic fact : the mind is kick-ass powerful when it comes to influencing digestion. Who we are literally helps create our chemistry. So if we neglect what’s going on in our inner world, then we won’t have the full story about what’s impacting our metabolic world.
Let me share with you a case study that I believe illustrates rather well the elegance of the mind-body-digestion connection. Case studies are one of the most powerful teaching tools that we use here at theInstitute for the Psychology of Eating in our professional certification training. Our students love them, and it helps them sharpen their skills and understand the hidden nuances of how to create success with clients.
Christopher, age 42, is a mid-level executive at a PR firm in New York City. He’s ambitious, hard-working, goal driven, and wants to climb the ladder of success. Married with two young children, Christopher certainly feels the stress of his intense work schedule and misses spending more time with his family. The biggest pain of all though, is his body. He’s coming to see me for intense heartburn after almost every meal, and the seemingly constant complaint of gas and bloating. Christopher’s doctor told him he needed to be on heartburn medication for the rest of his life. He didn’t like this advice. He’d seen a dietitian who had him cut down on alcohol, coffee and spicy foods. This helped a little bit, but my client wasn’t about to live life without beer and Starbucks. When Christopher came to see me, he was feeling desperate for some kind of relief.
Half of the story of good digestion is what you eat. I’d like to suggest that the other half of the story of good digestion is who you are. Applying this key concept to my client, I asked the kinds of questions that would help me understand who my client is and how he shows up in the world. Here are some juicy facts I discovered:
Christopher has little time to eat during the day. He inhales his breakfast as he’s running out the door to go to work. He eats lunch in about five minutes while sitting at his desk working, talking, and commiserating with the computer. Christopher is a very fast eater. He claims he always has been, and insists he always will be. It’s a habit of his that cannot be stopped. Oddly enough, when he has a late dinner at home, he finishes it in less than 15 minutes while watching TV.
Now let me share with you some simple science that should be headline news, but hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves: when the brain perceives stress, there’s an almost instantaneous response in the digestive tract. The same switch in the brain – the sympathetic nervous system – that fully activates the stress response has the interesting function of turning off digestion. Conversely, the same switch in the brain that turns on the relaxation response – the parasympathetic nervous system – turns on full healthy digestive, assimilative, and calorie burning power.
So let’s do the math. My client is constantly living in and eating under a stress response.
A constant physiologic stress response virtually guarantees constant digestive challenge. Of course, the only way to test out this simple science in a practical way is to do an elegant experiment: relax when you eat, and see what happens.
So my assignment for Christopher was this: for the next 3 weeks he needed to slow down with food, take more time to eat, sit down when he ate breakfast, take a half hour for an undisturbed lunch, take 5 to 10 long slow deep breaths before every meal or snack, and pretend that it’s okay to relax even though you work at a busy PR firm in New York City. In other words, put your body into the optimum state of digestion and assimilation, which is the physiologic relaxation response. Work with the way that evolutionary intelligence designed your biology.
I’ll skip the part about how difficult it was to slow down and relax. Chances are, you can relate. Life isn’t always fluffing the pillows for us. But I will say this – Christopher was stunned how his heartburn and digestive issues would completely disappear for days at a time when he practiced slower, relaxed, nourished eating. He hadn’t been symptom free since his early 20s. For him, there were no pills to take and no dietary tweaks to make. Christopher simply needed to practice the art of relaxed living. Of course, not only did his digestion improve, but we started exploring together all the other places in life where he was lacking presence and a sense of connection – his marriage and his parenting being the most important places where he wasn’t fully “digesting and assimilating.”
Nutritional healing is more than just food and supplements. It’s about looking at all of who we are as eaters – body, mind, heart, soul and anything else that makes us imperfectly human. I was certainly happy that my client was on the road to a happier digestion. But what mattered most was that I’d made a sweet difference in someone’s life and helped him see how his way of being in the world was impacting not only his health, but his most important relationships as well.
The work we do at the Institute for the Psychology of Eating is not merely about changing people’s diets. It’s about helping people wake up to their most beautiful potential. It’s about helping others see their health challenges not as an obstacle, but as a place where there’s tremendous opportunity to grow, learn, and transform.
Please feel free to share your thoughts – I’d love to know if you can relate to any of this personally or professionally.
Founder – Institute for the Psychology of Eating
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