Eating mindfully: Fight or Flight vs Rest and Digest

"For the most part, we eat with great automaticity and little insight into its critical importance for us in sustaining life and also in sustaining health." - Jon Kabat Zinn 

I see the same patterns in my practice over and over again. High stressed individuals with digestive concerns; people who rush from one thing to another without taking a second to stop, breathe properly, or even eat properly. I admit that I am guilty of this too from time to time, but the difference is astonishing when you CARVE OUT the time to live and eat intentionally.

So, who should incorporate this into their own life? Well, everyone but particularly those who resonate with being high stress and/or those who don’t have optimal digestion. This can be constipation, diarrhea, gas, bloating, heartburn or nausea (think, Pepto Bismol commercial).

Our bodies have two ‘modes’. Our sympathetic state (also known as fight or flight) is our survival mode. It is the part of our nervous system that signals to our metabolism, muscles, brain and organ systems – including the gastrointestinal tract -  that there is a threat and we need to react. Our parasympathetic state (aka rest and digest) is what we should be in the majority of the time. This signals to our body that we are safe and we can carry on with our necessary daily function like muscle growth, sleep, digestion etc. We cannot be in both the parasympathetic and sympathetic state at the same time. Unfortunately, many of us living a North American lifestyle remain in a sympathetic state chronically. What does this mean? It means we put on fat, have trouble putting on muscle, have disturbed sleep, anxiety, and of course digestive issues (to name a few).
Lucky for us, there are very simple ways to engage our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) which you can start today to help aid digestion:

1.     Stimulate stomach acid: Many of us in the Western world have poor quality or low stomach acid (yes, contrary to what many people are told). This is often due to age, processed/refined diet, but importantly, stress. When stomach acid is low, food cannot be broken down properly and digestive enzymes are not released to break that down into absorbable parts. This can lead to many undesirable digestive symptoms. Increasing stomach acid stimulates the PNS, signalling to the body it is ready for food. Having warm water with lemon, bitter herbs or apple cider vinegar prior to meals can stimulate this process.


2.     Deep breathing: Deep breathing literally stimulates the vagus nerve which engages the PNS. When this happens, your stomach acid naturally increases (which is the goal) and the body switches into the mode that is ready to digest and relax.

3.     Mindful Eating: Turn off the television. Put down the phone. Chew. Take a moment before starting the meal to be grateful that there is food in front of you.  In a study published in the journal of Gastroenterology, two groups were given a mineral drink; one group was to only focus on consuming the drink while the other had distracter stimuli. The group that was focused on drinking absorbed 100% of the nutrients while the distractor group absorbed significantly less. So, take the time to notice what you are eating so you can get the most from it. 
As always, this is for information purposes only. Contact your naturopathic doctor to individualize care for you. 

1.     Shu-Zhen Wang, Sha Li, Xiao-Yang Xu, Gui-Ping Lin, Li Shao, Yan Zhao, and Ting Huai Wang. Effect of slow abdominal breathing combined with biofeedback on blood pressure and heart rate variability in prehypertension. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. October 2010, 16(10): 1039-1045. doi: 10.1089/acm.2009.0577
3.     (5) Sharp GS, Fister HW. The diagnosis and treatment of achlorhydria: ten-year study. J Amer Ger Soc 1967;15:786-791