When it comes to healthy digestion, what does your environment, mindset and the way that you perceive and consume your food have to do with it? A lot, it turns out.
We all have an autonomic nervous system. Autonomic meaning self-governing/autonomous. What we know about the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is that we don’t consciously control it – it is a self-regulating system that is reactive to our emotional and physical space. The ANS has two dominant states – sympathetic (fight, flight) or parasympathetic (rest, digest, repair and reproduce). We also know that you cannot be in both states simultaneously – they are somewhat opposing forces much like cortisol and melatonin.
The state that you are in when you consume food (as well as directly after consumption) plays a significant role in your body’s ability to digest that meal. If your ANS perceives danger or increased stress, the focus is on survival, not digestion or reproduction or healing. But what IS stress?
It is not only that recognisable state of total overwhelm (see the image of a woman screaming whilst tugging on the ends of her hair, face red, exacerbated). Your finely tuned system interprets your thoughts, emotions and environment and reacts according to ‘perceived’ threat – as well as actual threat. For this reason, mindset and emotion play a key role when it comes to healthy digestion.
Let me paint a picture for you. You’ve had a bit of a busy morning (but managed to skip out of the office to grab a quick coffee) and you’ve got a deadline looming which means you don’t have time to have a lunch break. Luckily, you’ve planned ahead and brought lunch with you so you whip out your salad and can of tuna and continue charging through the heavy workload whilst absentmindedly eating your lunch. You look down and realise you’ve finished it, but don’t even remember eating it! To eat like this is common, but not normal.
To offer a comparison, let’s imagine that you are in the shoes of your great grandmother, or similar. She’s spent the morning tending the home and has possibly been out to harvest some vegetables from the back garden. She’s taken some time to prepare a wholesome lunch which is not extravagant, merely a selection of home-grown vegetables and possibly legumes or meat. She has no deadlines, no emails to respond to, her mind is calm and constant – free to ponder and daydream. There are no afternoon meetings, no traffic jams and no wifi. When your great grandfather comes in for lunch, they sit at the kitchen table and natter about the events of the morning (which wouldn’t stand a chance of keeping anyone’s interest piqued on Facebook). After lunch, it’s time for a short nap, or other relaxing pastime like knitting, reading a book or even doing nothing at all. After some time, they get back to their jobs/chores and go about their day.
Does the comparison seem stark but true? Is it any wonder, then, that we are a nation of poor digesters? Even those who don’t have food intolerances or pathology find themselves a bit bloated, craving sugar or needing to discreetly let go of some extra wind.
We know that the optimal state to be in when eating is parasympathetic, but in this busy day in age, how do we ensure that we’re in the optimal state for high-level digestion?
Here are some environmental conditions that will likely put digestion on the back burner:
- Sitting in front of your computer, phone, iPad, television
- Reading anything
- Being in a room with lots of noise
- Anywhere with conflict – family disagreements, workplace tension, deadlines
- A shopping centre
- Being on the phone (as opposed to scrolling through the socials)
Here are some mindset conditions that will impair digestion:
- Rushing so you can get back to work
- Feeling upset about the post you just saw on Facebook
- Being concerned about what you’re eating if you have intolerances
- Worrying about how the food was prepared
- Feeling mad, bad, sad, guilty, exhausted, agitated, impatient, worried, nervous, hurried
Here are some physical fails that will limit digestive capacity:
- Putting your next mouthful on the fork before you’ve finished chewing this one
- Swallowing your food before it is thoroughly chewed (so that it’s almost a liquid)
- Being distracted by environment
- Not thinking about how you’re eating
- Drinking too much water while eating (diluting hydrochloric acid)
- Not looking at your food (if you’re on a screen)
- Not being grateful
All of these things and more impact on how well you digest. If you want to make a major difference to what your body does with food, then perhaps it’s time to slow down and pay attention. It’s also clear that, due to intolerances, people have become rather hyper-aware of WHAT they are eating. They know the details of the macro and micro nutrients, the histamine, fructose, gluten, dairy, sugar, protein, fat content of their meal. They are so consumed with the ‘what’ that often, there has been no consideration of the ‘how’.
To help make mealtimes a home run for your tum, here are my suggestions that you can practice when it’s mealtime, and it will take practice. If there’s one thing I know it’s that what we eat has taken priority over how we eat, when they are as important as each other.
The first one is simple; Check in with yourself to see if you’re actually hungry. In a nation of chronic over-consumption, we have forgotten to figure out if we’re actually hungry. Just because it’s midday, that doesn’t mean your body needs the energy from calories right now.
Mindset: Take a few moments before you eat to take some nice slow breaths, soften your shoulders, relax your tummy, and move towards a state of gratitude. This, for many, takes place when saying grace. If you don’t abide by religion, perhaps think of how the food got to be here, how many people were involved in its growth, transport and preparation and be thankful for that. This creates a state of high receptivity.
Environment: Where are you? Can you move away from your desk, the crowds to somewhere a little quieter?
Screens off. Period. Not negotiable. Sure, if you’re a snappy instagrammer and you must, must share your latest consumables, take the pic, but post later.
Now it’s time to eat. Being mindful to slow down is key to healthy digestion. Heck even close your eyes if you truly want to taste your food. Let’s get into the experience of eating – the joy of the flavours, the textures and contrasts. The best way to do that is create space for it.
NEVER have the next mouthful loaded while you’re still chewing. In fact, a great habit is to put your cutlery down after each mouthful.
If any of the earlier examples rang true for you, and you’re currently working to figure out what on earth is going on with your poor-performing gut, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by employing these age-old strategies. We need to re-learn the basics of healthy eating. When it comes to improving digestion, how you eat needs to be as much of the conversation and what you eat.