Have you ever wondered how to boost and better your digestive health? Ever wonder what it would be like to have a magic switch to turn your digestion on or off? Well, guess what?
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”. This switch is regulated by our nervous system.
Sympathetic Nervous System vs Parasympathetic Nervous System Digestion
Our nervous system has two primary aspects that are crucial to our understanding:
- The Sympathetic Nervous System – also known as the “fight or flight” response
- The Parasympathetic Nervous System – also known as the “rest and digest” response
They each have a powerful and essential function, as you might imagine.
Sympathetic Nervous System and Digestion
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 or 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 the 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.
Parasympathetic Nervous System and Digestion
The good news, however, is that we can improve our digestive health by simply shifting out of the physiologic stress response and back into parasympathetic nervous system activation. Activation of our parasympathetic nervous system is also known as rest and digest mode. 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. So there is a positive connection between digestion and the parasympathetic nervous system, which enhances our overall digestion health. 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?
Strategies for Better Digestive Wellness
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 breathing and its connection to our mood and emotions. So before you begin eating, take one minute to breathe fully, gently, and slowly. Bring yourself to your body, sitting there at the table. Be committed to 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 breathing?
2. Slow Down
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.
So slow down. Life happens so fast. It deserves our full attention and it deserves its 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 eating slowly.
3. Enjoy Your Food
When we focus on enjoying our food, we activate our pleasure receptors, and we tune into our senses – our sense of taste, touch, and 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 health, but it’s not the whole story. Digestive wellness and nutritional healing are much more than just the food and supplements we choose to ingest. Go ahead, and see what happens when you add pleasure into the equation.
Key Takeaways to Digestive Wellness
So in conclusion, here are the key takeaways to better digestive health and wellness:
- The sympathetic nervous system reacts as a stress response mechanism that promotes fight or flight mode and shuts down digestion.
- The parasympathetic nervous system reacts as a relaxation response mechanism that activates rest and digestion.
- Mindful breathing shifts our bodies into a more relaxed state.
- Eating slowly and mindfully can activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
These truths are at the core of Mind Body Nutrition and are just some of the key principles that we dive into in our premiere online program for the public – Transform Your Relationship with Food™. 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 diets. 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 health.
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