When the word digestion is mentioned, most people begin to imagine their stomaches, or perhaps even the intestines or other organs that make up the GI (gastrointestinal) tract. In thinking about the process that takes the food that we put in our mouths and goes through the length of our torso, supplying nutrients and fuel for our bodies cells; we can forget, or maybe not even realize in the first place, that digestion doesn’t actually start in the mouth. The digestion process begins in the head. How we think about food, even before we take a bite, can have a profound affect on how we then digest it. When we see or smell foods, our brain sends a message to the salivary glands to begin secreting saliva in anticipation of a meal. The saliva contains enzymes to begin breaking down the food in your mouth and also stimulate the stomach to begin releasing hydrochloric acid, gastric juices and other enzymes which will make the rest of the digestion process follow.
The surrounding atmosphere, your internal thoughts, and your mood before you even approach a meal are way more important than you may think for optimal digestion of your food. It is crucial that you engage the parasympathetic state and feel relaxed and not stressed out, angry, or anxious when you eat. If you eat while in a sympathetic state (stressed), the absorption of nutrients from the foods you are eating will be hindered. This is because when the body is in a sympathetic state (faced with a real or perceived threat), it moves blood out into the extremities for optimal fight/ flight reaction power in the limbs. This also means, however; that blood has been shuttled away from the organs and GI tract and digestion is suddenly put much lower on the body’s priority list. The parasympathetic system is responsible for activating the secretions that come from the salivary glands and also the peristalsis (the on-going undulating movement used by the muscles of the GI tract to move digested food down through the digestive process). So, even if you are eating a lot of nutrient dense healthy foods, they may not be doing all that much for you if you are not relaxed when ingesting them.
Going along with your approach (stressed or relaxed) to the meal, another factor that can affect nutrient absorption is whether you take the time to slow down and chew each bite properly. When we fail to do this, the brain doesn’t get the message to trigger the appropriate digestive processes. The whole point of eating food, on a very basic level, is to nourish and replenish our bodies with what they need to upkeep all the systems and organs and on-going cell processes. Nutrient absorption is therefore pretty key in making this happen, but if we don’t chew the food thoroughly; we may be short-changing our bodies. In order to take your time with meals and chew bites properly, it may mean that your meals will take more time to eat and it may discourage habits like eating “on the run”, whether while driving from appointment to appointment, or standing in front of the fridge, and etc… It is worth the effort to slow down though.
Not only is it good to make sure you are in a relaxed state before eating, and chewing each bite thoroughly; but it may also be good to limit distractions while eating your meals. This is one of the hardest habits to break if you are used to often having meals along with watching the TV, reading articles in a magazine, or scrolling through social media. There are downsides to eating while distracted. Whatever you are giving your attention to rather than your meal will be more predominantly on your mind than paying attention to how your food tastes, its texture, your hunger and fullness signals, and how thoroughly you are chewing each morsel. As many of us have experienced first hand, it is much easier to eat way more than we realize when we are not really paying attention. Also, it is harder for your brain to register that you just finished a filling meal if you were not really present for it. This may result in cravings for more food in just a little while after eating a meal while distracted.
Although it can seem rather daunting at first, learning to adopt a parasympathetic state before eating can be such a game changer for your digestion. And this is important, because how you digest your food an assimilate nutrients into your body has a large impact on the rest of your health.
Do you try to slow down and enjoy each bite when you eat your meals?