Besides breathing and sleeping, eating is the most vital activity in life. We cannot support ourselves without eating. But we seem to forget about this, spending very few hours (or even minutes) gathering, preparing and eating food. As Jon Kabat Zinn, psychologist and author of several books on consciousness, says:
“Most of the time, we eat with great automatism and little awareness of its critical importance for the maintenance of life and health as well.”
Food gives us energy and allows us to think, move and thrive. But we are no longer aware of the impact of food on our functioning. Our food preferences and choices are now more influenced by food companies, advertising campaigns and the notion that “the faster the better”. We don’t always (or maybe even often) choose foods based on what our bodies need for optimal well-being.
Our busy lives and stress prevent us from taking the time to truly nourish our body and soul. We eat for convenience, not health.
How does mindfulness help?
If we start paying attention to how specific foods affect our bodies, we can begin to make better choices about what foods to buy and eat.
For example, Jennifer was tempted at the grocery store to buy one of the sweet cereal and she ate a bowl of it every morning. But she found she was always hungry a few hours after breakfast, craving a muffin or sweet roll. At the suggestion of a friend, she started eating eggs for breakfast and found she wasn’t that hungry and didn’t want sugar. (Probably because the protein and fat in eggs made her feel full, while her previous breakfast, which contained more sugar, probably raised her insulin level. Insulin lowered the glucose level in her blood, making it so feel hungry.)
If we pay attention to our eating, we will probably eat less and digest what we eat better.
Susan Albers, author of Eating Mindfully, suggests that in our fast-paced world, attention to the things you “need to do has a higher priority than what’s going on inside.” “Slowing down,” she says, “is a foreign concept to busy people. Doing multiple things at once is considered a more efficient way of doing things.” We may not even care that multitasking registers as stress in the mind and therefore triggers a stress response in the body.
But when we eat under stress or when we experience agitation or unpleasant emotions, it affects not only what we eat, but how we digest what we eat.
Stress affects our digestion
When our bodies sense a threat, a series of physiological reactions occur within seconds. Our bodies go into a state of readiness, a chemical version of “code red”. This is called the “fight or flight response”, also known as the stress response.
In this state, the following processes occur:
- Sympathetic nervous system stimulated
- Parasympathetic nervous system is dominated
- pupils dilate
- Blood pressure rises
- The digestion has been suppressed
- Immunity is suppressed
- Detox is suppressed
- Gradual bone demineralization
- Impairment of fatty acid metabolism
- Released glucose
- Cholesterol released
- Disturbed hormones
- Broken muscle, retained fluid
- Fat is deposited
- Decreased energy
- Mood fluctuations
- Stimulated Inflammatory Mediators
What Happens to Digestion Under Stress
When the body is fighting or fleeing, it gives very little priority to digestion. In fact, it basically puts the digestive system on hold. After all, if you’re being chased by a saber-tooth tiger, it’s not really time to stop and eat.
Less digestive enzymes:
As the digestive system is shut down, less digestive enzymes are released and less hydrochloric acid is secreted to help break down carbohydrates, fats and proteins.
Without stomach acid, many vitamins and minerals cannot be broken down, released or absorbed.
The ability to metabolize is impaired:
During the stress response, the cells’ ability to metabolize fatty acids is also impaired. Instead, the body tends to break down muscles and replace them with stored fat and excess fluid. Over time, this can cause weight gain.
Excess glucose released:
During the stress response, excess glucose is released into the bloodstream to provide additional energy. The pancreas then releases additional insulin to supply the excess glucose. Some researchers believe this can create cravings for foods high in sugar.
Your body perceives distraction as stress
You might think that the stress response doesn’t really apply because you don’t eat much when you’re stressed. But distraction can act just like stress in terms of its impact on the digestive system.
An oft-cited 1987 study, published in the journal Gastroenterology, illustrates how metabolism and digestion are altered under distraction and perceived stimuli. In this study:
Participants consumed a mineral drink while relaxed. The researchers found that the participants absorbed 100% of the drink’s nutrients in this relaxed state.
Then, participants were asked to focus while two different people spoke to them simultaneously. In one ear, someone talked about intergalactic space travel, while in the other ear someone talked about financial planning. When subjects were exposed to this auditory conflict and given the same mix of minerals, they showed a significant reduction in assimilation that lasted up to an hour later.
The simple act of attending to two stimuli at the same time drastically altered your metabolism, although we normally don’t find it very stressful. Consider that people often read the newspaper, watch TV or drive a car while eating. These distracting stimuli can impair, to some extent, the ability to fully digest.
Stimuli affect digestion
The bottom line is, if you’re eating overstimulated and under stress, your body doesn’t know it must be digesting itself. When you run out the door in the morning, a toast in hand, or have lunch in front of a computer screen, or when you worry anxiously about the day or experience negative emotions linked to a relationship, the message you are sending to your body is “don digest. ”
For your body, these stimuli, while not as dramatic or intense as being chased by a saber-tooth tiger, are still being registered as an “emergency.” Therefore, you may experience digestive symptoms such as heartburn, feeling of food in your stomach, bloating, belching, and generalized stomach pain. The nutritional value of even the healthiest meal is diminished because the digestive system is not functioning optimally to absorb nutrients.
Stress also inhibits concentration, memory and reason, which can also affect your food planning and choice.
More about mindfulness and digestion
Eating mindfully has health benefits. Paying attention to eating ensures complete digestion as well as full nutritional benefit.
There is an initial phase of digestion called the cephalic phase that occurs before we actually start eating. Cephalic means “head,” so it’s not surprising that this early stage of digestion begins with the brain seeing, smelling, and anticipating food. An example of the cephalic phase is when you smell bread baking. Anticipating the delicious taste of freshly baked bread makes your mouth save, preparing you to eat the bread.
At this stage, the brain tells the stomach to prepare for a meal, starting a series of digestive activities. The body begins to prepare itself for the breakdown and absorption of nutrients. Salivation is activated (saliva is used for the initial breakdown of carbohydrates) and pancreatic enzymes and stomach acids (also used to break down food) are released. The conveyor belt that is the digestive tract begins its rhythmic movement so that nutrients can be absorbed and transported.
It is estimated that about 30 to 40 percent of the total digestive response to any meal is due to the cephalic phase. So if we don’t pay attention to the food before we start eating, if we’re not fully aware of what and when we’re eating, it stands to reason that we’re not eliciting the fully beneficial digestive response.
How can I eat consciously?
Eating with attention is the complete experience of our meal. Enlightened Diet authors Deborah Kesten and Larry Scherwitz describe mindful eating as being present, moment by moment, for every sensation that happens during eating, such as chewing, tasting, and swallowing.
“When you take the time to experience your food through all your senses; taste (taste), smell (aroma), sight (presentation), sound (of the surroundings) and touch (movement of utensils and the feel of food),” they suggest: “you are likely to be really nourished”.