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In modern times, eating has become an inconvenience for many Americans. As a result of on-the-go eating habits and products, shifting priorities, and a daily barrage of stimuli, we’ve lost touch with the joy of eating and worsened our health on the way. In this article, you’ll find seven easy, actionable steps to reconnect with your food and your digestive system to improve your health.
[If you missed the first part of this article, find out the True Cost of Eating for Convenience here]
What happens in our bodies when we eat?
To drill down another layer into what is happening when we eat, it is important to consider how food interacts with our physical body. The Autonomic (a bit like “automatic”) Nervous System controls the digestive system of human beings. This may come as a surprise to some who have never learned or stopped to experience this reality.
Branches of the Autonomic Nervous System:
- Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS): the “rest and digest” system.
- Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS): the opposite of the PNS system, known as the “fight or flight” system.
These two autonomic nervous system branches work in tandem, with one dominating at any given time. As you have probably experienced when faced with any sort of threat, the SNS kicks into gear very quickly, putting you on high-alert and ready to react in a matter of seconds. When the SNS is engaged, the less-important bodily functions go on hold so as to mobilize all available resources for the imminent threat. One such less-important function is digestion.
Developed for the age of threatening lions, tigers, and bears, modern life causes nervous system “overdrive”
Our hard-wired “fight or flight” system is no longer just activated by the threat of a wild animal’s attack; it is activated numerous times every day, and often during the night for those who do not disconnect from devices for sleep (or for those who have sleep apnea and wake multiple times each night due to obstruction of the airway). In our modern society, the stimuli which trigger the SNS include driving, text message alerts, Facebook notifications, news headlines, TV shows, video games, an email reporting a problem with one’s bank account, mobile phone calls which interrupt any and every occasion, night-shifts, and the list goes on. The result is a low-grade and/or high-grade, chronic stimulation of the SNS, often with no true threat, nor (really important point) resolution to the threat(s).
Our SNS has not evolved to keep pace with the barrage of our modern day, and in my opinion as a doctor, nor will it or should it. Both scientific studies and observational evidence shows that the prolonged activation of the SNS causes a myriad of health problems rooted in inflammation, an effect of the hormone cortisol which SNS activity stimulates.
Modern ways of eating put digestion on hold
To bring this back to eating, the key message is this: when we eat “on the go”, while driving, while in a meeting, at the computer, checking email or while staring at a screen, the SNS will prevail and digestion will be put on hold. The result? Numerous digestive “disorders” which are actually disorders of behavior and the expected result of a body not being able to “rest and digest.”
The diagnoses of GERD (Gastro Esophageal Reflux Disease), IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), chronic constipation, and functional abdominal pain can often be significantly improved by providing the body the time it needs to engage the “rest and digest” system (PNS) and do what it knows how to do: digest our food properly.
Poor digestion impacts all other bodily systems
The results of poorly digested food and these digestive disorders are not confined to the digestive system, as our compartmentalized medical system would have us believe. Poorly digested food impacts the microbial community dwelling in our intestines, which impacts the immune system. The PNS’s network of nerves and hormones in the abdomen is often called the “second brain”, as it is constantly communicating with our ‘primary’ brain. A recent study showed improvement in patients with moderate-severe depression who adopted a Mediterranean-style diet compared to those who did not. Our digestive system is integrally related to every other bodily system due to how integrally it is controlled by the nervous system.
Perhaps by this point you are sufficiently persuaded and willing to try a new approach to eating… which is in fact, not new at all, but a return to how humans for most of history have related with food.
Seven steps to engaging the ”rest and digest” system when you eat:
1. Gather your food on a plate/bowl/dish (even if it is take-out and in containers).
2. Clear an area where you plan to eat so that it is free of devices, reading material, screens and clutter.
3. Sit down and take 3 slow, deep breaths (this activates the PNS through the vagus nerve)
4. Smell your food. Look at your food. Notice how you feel. Consider a pause of gratitude for the hands which have worked to provide this food for you, even if it was your own.
5. Take a bite. Chew it well, noticing the textures and flavors.
6. Swallow slowly and take another breath.
7. Repeat until you sense satisfaction, that you have had enough… even if there is still food on your plate.
You might also try doing these things with others, helping one another to collectively slow down and be present with the experience of eating.
I encourage you to try these steps for one meal at first. See how you feel. Notice if you experience any difference in your sense of hunger and satiety, your sense of wellbeing, energy, groundedness, anything. Then try it again for another meal, then another, and another. Perhaps you’ll find that eating isn’t so inconvenient, and can be full of pleasure and joy.
However, I also want to acknowledge that our relationship with food is not always easy, and the above steps may not bring about pleasure or joy. Slowing down, paying attention and listening to the body may in fact bring up difficult things – uncomfortable sensations, emotions, discontent with the type of food you are eating or dislike of the flavors or textures once your body has a chance to notice more fully, with all your senses.
These things are a real part of our health, our relationship with food and the food system. I encourage you to do some of this work of noticing in the context of community, relationships/family/friends, and not just alone. Food is something humans have always done together. Let’s work on recovering the value of food in our lives. Our health on every level will benefit.