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?
Founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating
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