You may have heard the phrase ‘rest and digest’. It’s the opposing state of ‘fight and flight’. These are two arms representing our autonomic nervous system (The Autonomic nervous system, ANS, actually has three arms – the third being the enteric nervous system, but here we’ll talk about the two more commonly discussed).
The ANS controls the day-to-day operations of most of our internal organs including the cardiovascular system (including heart and blood vessels), the digestive system, respiratory tract, kidney and urinary bladder function. Other involuntary responses to external stimuli are also mediated by the ANS. These include constriction of the pupil in bright light and dilation of the pupil in dim light, vasodilation of the skin and sweating in response to high core temperature, and vasoconstriction, “goose bumps,” and increased fat metabolism in response to low core temperature.
This system is certainly influenced by your physical experiences; temperature, movement (exercise), atmosphere. What can be easy to overlook, however, is the way that your ANS perceives threats from your thoughts. Am I safe to eat and digest? If so, blood flow remains focused around the intestines, breath is slow and deep, bowels are primed and ready. If not, litres of blood are rapidly drained from around the digestive tract and reassigned to limbs to enable fighting or fleeing. It’s quite clever, really.
We know that digestion takes a whole lot of energy and time; time for food to make its way through the multiple processes involved in breaking down (catabolising), taking up (assimilation) and elimination. For many, as soon as the last mouthful hits the mouth, the meal time is effectively over and they move on to the next task. But digestion is far from complete at the intake of that last mouthful. What I see is a great majority of people eating their meal in front of a screen, snacking whilst driving or even whilst shooting off some ‘urgent’ emails. As your brain focuses on navigating the roads, or wonders how on earth you’re going to get on top of the ever-expanding inbox, there is signalling going on that tells the ANS it is not time for digestion, it is time for attention (and possibly evasion of danger).
It feels wrong, don’t you think? Can you remember a time when you finished a meal and then realised you didn’t notice you’d eaten it? This can be devastating if part of that meal was a scrumptious dessert!
I’ve just finished watching the Human Longevity Project – an online event in which world experts in health and wellbeing were interviewed alongside centenarians and those living in the ‘Blue Zones’. It was a fantastic series and I couldn’t help but notice something about these aged populations. They had a really peaceful pace about them. Yes, they were elderly which of course lends itself to slowing down, but there was more of an intention about it. It was as if that is how they’ve lived. Consciously, slowly, methodically. It was inspiring to watch.
When I chat with patients about fine tuning their choices, inevitably we talk about taking your time to eat as well as chewing thoroughly. Not only do many people rush through their meals, but largely they are immediately back on task. What happened to the post-lunch siesta or reprieve? What happened to creating just a little space for that meal to get a good chance at optimal digestion? And why do we feel so darned guilty about stopping for 20 minutes?
Look at Europe – it’s napping – probably right now. And there’s a good chance that not one of them feels even a pinch guilty about it. If a society is made up of a series of individuals making a series of choices, then your choice to create space for optimal digestion is valuable. Will your inbox ever stop being inundated? Will the deadlines ever cease? I don’t think they will.
When it comes to optimising health, we seriously need to drop the guilt about stopping. Ditch the story of not having time. Time is yours. You own it and you certainly influence it. If you’re in the space of optimisation you need to send a message out to those around you; I value my health enough to stop, (and possibly nap)!