Have you ever heard of the phrase “trust your gut”, or referred to having “a gut-feeling” about something? These are not random pairings of words! There is a reason we say them, and that is because the mind-body, or in this case, the mind-gut connection is powerful…
Stress begins in the mind, but it quickly wreaks havoc on the entire body inhibiting many of its essential processes. When it comes to digestion, we are often so concerned with what we are eating that we seldom pay attention to the way we are eating i.e. our state of being. We are not what we eat, we are what we absorb! You could be eating all the right things, however if you are constantly eating in a state of panic, absorption is compromised and all the nutrients you are hoping will nourish your body have difficulty reaching their destination.
Stress signals to your body that you are in danger, activating the fight or flight response in your central nervous system. This triggers our adrenal glands to pump out the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol to help us deal with the perceived threat. It just so happens that digestion is also controlled by the nervous system, however, in periods of stress, it is secondary to getting us out of danger, thus it is shut down. Our bodies are clever and know that it is not necessary for survival at that moment, so it prioritizes stress. Hello bloating, gas, indigestion and bowel disruptions!
How does this happen? Adrenaline, our short-term stress hormone, will divert the blood supply away from digestion and will send it to your arms and legs, which the body believes will run or climb and carry you to safety! It also negatively affects the contractions of our digestive muscles, and decreases production of our digestive juices; meaning food cannot be broken down properly. If you eat regardless of these functions shutting down it can cause inflammation making you more susceptible to infection such as food allergies and gut permeability like leaky gut.
Unlike the stressors of famine or predators of our past, modern world stress is brought on by an email, a nasty conversation, an alarm going off, your phone ringing, or a text message – often in combination and all at once! But our bodily functions are ancient, and historically adrenaline was produced to prevent us from being a saber-tooth’s next meal! If our today’s stresses are demanding our body to produce adrenaline when all we are doing is sitting at a desk (often eating), you can understand the confusion!
Our bodies are doing everything they possibly can to keep us alive and well. Even though we would love for them to be focused on digestion while we are shovelling down mouthful after mouthful, if our mind is elsewhere, if we are consumed by panic and anxiety, our bodies will do what it thinks is best, prioritise safety and forget about digestion altogether.
While digestive issues may be common, they are by no means normal! See them as a sign that something needs addressing. No good can come of living in a fight or flight dominant state. It is time to listen to our bodies and respond. Eat in a calm state and feel the difference in your digestion and vitality.
Tips to bring calm to mealtime
Do not eat at your desk!
Take that lunch break you are entitled to. This will assist with weight loss/maintenance (you tend to overeat when you are not focused on your food), allow for better brain function and productivity, give you an opportunity for some fresh air and vitamin D (10-15 minutes of sun exposure daily) and will aid optimal digestion.
Take 5-20 deep diaphragmatic breaths before eating. This might sound crazy or over-indulgent (who has time for this?!) but deep breaths are a sure-fire way to signal to your body that it is safe and that all is well.
Smell the aroma of your food
This stimulates our digestive juices that help break down food. Think about it, in caveman times, it took hours to prepare food (no fast food then!) and thus the body was adequately prepared for digestion.
Chew at least 10 times before you swallow. 20 is optimal! Rest your utensils between mouthfuls to help with eating slowly.
Eat mindfully and with pleasure
Enjoy the wonderful flavours and nutrients you are feeding yourself! Pleasure is a fantastic antidote to stress.
Chamomile tea is very soothing both for relieving anxiety as well as for relaxing digestive muscles. Sip on a cup 30 minutes prior to mealtime.