Why Mindful Eating Could Be the Key to Good Digestion

Tess Patrick TESS PATRICK

Do you suffer from indigestion, bloating, stomach cramps, or other digestive discomforts you know to be associated with food? This one’s for you.

Have you developed an eating ritual? It doesn’t have to be something as profound as saying grace or smoothies at the breakfast bar. In fact, it might be more akin to dinner in front of the TV, or toast is eaten as you drop the kids to school. The reality is, we’re busy, and we all do the best that we can with the time we have available. But if I were to tell you that what you’re doing while you’re eating is having a significant impact on the way your body is digesting food, would it make you think about how dinner is spent a little differently?

There’s a reason why we feel good when we eat mindfully. It’s because our bodies are able to digest more efficiently when we’re relaxed and free from stressors or simple distractions. So while sitting down to dinner with your favorite show playing may seem like a relaxing activity, it’s actually disrupting the digestive process.

How does digestion work?

It’s important to understand this, so you can see how your eating ritual may be contributing to your discomfort. To explore this idea, we’re actually going to take a look at the nervous system, and stress’ role in digestion.

You may be familiar with two branches of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), being the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. Our body is always in either one of these states. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our body’s stress response, the classic fight, flight, or freeze response. Our parasympathetic, by contrast, is lovingly known as the rest and digest system, and here’s why.

When our bodies are caught up in a stress response, not only are they producing a high amount of the stress hormone cortisol (which impairs digestive capabilities on its own), but it also diverts all its essential energy stores away from processes that aren’t seen as immediately important. Because when you’re in a stressed-out state, the body just wants to keep you alive.

However, this also means that essential energy isn’t being sent to the digestive system, where it’s needed to break down delicious foods and send their nutrients throughout the body.

How does mindful eating play into this?

Mindful eating is a practice where we endeavor to bring our body back to the parasympathetic nervous system, our rest and digest response, so we can encourage healthy digestion. By adopting simple habits like eating in a relaxed state, and eating consciously, we’re making the digestive system’s job that much easier and reducing the cause of discomfort before it even begins.

If you’re new to mindful eating, here are 5 practices that you can adopt before your next meal:

  1. Practice saying grace, or expressing gratitude for your meal.
  2. Close your eyes and take ten conscious breaths before eating.
  3. Limit meals on the run where possible.
  4. Turn off the TV at dinner time, or try playing some relaxing music instead.
  5. Play a game with your family where you focus on the food, and each person tries to identify five flavors in the meal.
  6. Make time to eat where you can. This may mean getting up an extra 5 minutes earlier before the kids wake up for school, or step away from your desk on your lunch break. Not only is this good for digestion - but it will also bring you back to the present too.
  7. If you know you get cramps from sitting down after food, try a digestive walk, or standing to do the dishes.

If you haven’t developed a mindful eating ritual yet, I challenge you to adopt one over the next week and watch how it changes your digestion for the better.

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