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Our Digestive Switch

Updated: Mar 29, 2023

How often do you fixate on what you are eating? Is there enough protein? Have I got enough veggies on the plate? Am I eating too much? But what about how you are eating? How you eat has a huge impact on how you digest the food and how many of the beautiful nutrients that you are eating get absorbed.

When we think about digestion, we tend to think about our stomach being where it all begins. But it starts way before the food hits our stomachs. It even starts before we put the first bit of food in our mouth. So where does it start?

It starts in our brain. And it is controlled by our brain.

Each of us has an on-off switch for our digestive and metabolic systems, which is found in our central nervous system (our brain and spinal cord). Think of it like our digestive switch. Our environment, our thoughts, our meals... all of these will determine if we experience the comfort of the digestive switch being “on” – or the ill effects of it being “off”.

How do we turn our switch on or off?

Our nervous system has 2 parts to it:

  1. The Sympathetic Nervous System – also known as the 'fight or flight' response

  2. The Parasympathetic Nervous System – also known as the 'rest and digest' response.

They each have a powerful and essential function.

Our 'fight or flight' response kicks in whenever we‘re experiencing any kind of real or perceived threat. If fear (real or imagined) shows up in your thoughts or environment – being chased by a bear, running late for a plane, the never-ending to-do list full of urgent deadlines, or even judging ourselves for the food we are eating — we activate our fight or flight response.

As this occurs, our sympathetic nervous system moves our energy and blood flow out to our extremities so that we can fight or flee. When our body shuttles our energy and blood to our arms and legs, however, it also moves it away from our internal organs – including our digestive tract. Digestion is not essential when we are fighting for our lives, so, if we find ourselves in a full-tilt stress response, our digestion shuts down.

Yet even in a moderate or chronic stress response – like our to-do list for the day at work or our constant self-criticism – our digestive system is still impacted negatively. When we’re living in a state of worry or anxiety, our ability to digest, assimilate and metabolize our food is hugely reduced. This can lead to bloating, IBS, nutrient deficiencies, skin problems such as eczema and acne, hormonal imbalances and a host of other symptoms.

The reality is that our stress response holds great influence over our digestion and metabolism. We can have the most wonderfully healthy food on our plate, but if our sympathetic nervous system is activated, then we’re existing in fight or flight mode. In this mode, there’s simply no way that our body can fully digest and absorb the nutrients that we’re ingesting.

We can however improve our digestive wellness by shifting out of the physiologic stress response and back into parasympathetic nervous system activation aka 'rest and digest'. This is our relaxation response, which conserves energy whilst also slowing the heart rate down and increasing intestinal activity. When it comes to improving our digestion and overall wellness, this 'rest and digest 'parasympathetic nervous system is vital.

To help shift our body into rest and digest, when we are surrounded by everyday stressors, there are several strategies. These are my top 3:

1) Breathe

Our breath has an incredible connection to our mood and emotions. So before you begin eating, take one minute to breathe fully, gently and slowly. Bring yourself to your body, sitting at the table. Be committed to being nowhere else and begin breathing with the intention of relaxing and becoming fully present. This is the fastest way to shift our bodies into a more relaxed state. My favourite way to do this is to breathe in for a count of 4. Hold it for a count of 4. Breathe out for a count of 4. Do this a few times before eating. And anytime during the day when you are feeling particularly stressed.

2) Slow Down

Imagine shifting your body from 100 miles an hour to 25 miles an hour. If we can slow down more by sitting down to eat, by being realistic about how many things we can get done in a day, by focusing on one task instead of 5 at once, we can shift our body out of fight or flight mode, and into rest and digest mode. Relax. Enjoy the mealtime process. We don't need to move so fast that we can’t metabolize our meal. A big part of this is chewing your food, at least 10 times per mouthful. Focus on the food being liquid before you swallow it. This will help your stomach digest the food easier and provide the body with the nutrients it needs.

3) Enjoy Your Food

When we focus on enjoying our food, we activate our pleasure receptors. We tune into our senses – our sense of taste, touch, and smell, are initiated – and this has the positive impact of activating our 'rest and digest' response. So switch off from the TV, from your work, from your phone. Be present with your meal. Think about your meal time starting with your meal preparation. Digestion starts with the anticipation of food... typically when we are preparing our meals and we see the food, smell the food and feel the food. This leads to our stomach producing stomach acid so that when the food hits our stomach it's the right acidity to start breaking down the food. To help this process along take time to prepare your food and minimise 'grab and go' options.

Mindful eating not only changes the way you digest your food and how you feel afterwards, but it also increases your enjoyment of the food. And not just from a taste perspective. By switching off from screens and taking time to enjoy your meal you may also find that it increases the overall enjoyment of the eating experience. For my family, dinnertime chit-chat is the one time of our busy day when we are all together catching up and checking in with each other.

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