We cannot talk about gut health without talking about one of the most important pieces which is digestion and absorption! Mindful eating is a key component here. Many of us find ourselves mindlessly eating by scrolling on our phones, working through lunch, or watching TV. When we are distracted while eating we are not in tune with our bodies and hunger cues which can lead to overeating and weight gain and sympathetic nervous system activation which impairs digestion and absorption.
Our vagus nerve, which is involved in our parasympathetic nervous system or our “rest and digest” activities plays a huge role in our digestive processes during and after a meal including:
- Mechanical breakdown of solid foods
- Simulating secretion of saliva, digestive enzymes and bile
- Slowing gastric emptying
- Coordinates motility of the intestines
- Decreases inflammation and intestinal permeability
- Enhances satiety
We can enhance vagal nerve activity by focusing on mindfully eating and by pausing before a meal and taking a few deep breaths, incorporating mind-body work throughout our day such as acupuncture, singing/chanting, meditation, gargling, and strength training.
In contrast if we are stressed or distracted while we are eating and our sympathetic nervous system is turned on we can experience decreased blood flood to the GI tract, slower digestion, impaired nutrient absorption and increased intestinal permeability. This is all not good for our gut and overall health!
Mindfulness is defined as “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions or experiences on a moment to moment basis.” Mindful eating is eating with thought and intention, being present during your meal. When you are present with your meal, food becomes more enjoyable and it is easier to tune into your body and what it is telling you.
So how to do you eat mindfully?
- Turn off all distractions: Phone, computer, TV or anything that is pulling you away from truly tuning into your meal and your body.
- Set intention for the meal or say a prayer of gratitude
- Take a few slow, deep breaths to activate the vagal nerve and your parasympathetic nervous system.
- Focus on really tasting and savoring the food in front of you.
- Chew slowly and completely.
- Listen to your body’s hunger cues and stop or pause if you are feeling satiated.
- Enjoy your food and your company!
This is a skill I am retraining myself in. After my time working in the ICU, where I had had sometimes just minutes to eat an entire meal, I have had a horrible habit of eating way too quickly and not truly savoring a meal or eating mindfully, even when I do have the time. I have noticed that when I am stressed and particularly if I am working through lunch, my digestion is not optimal as I will feel bloated and sometimes even have pain! When I slow down I tend to enjoy the meal and not overeat and my digestion feels so much better. Working everyday to practice what I preach!
Cherpak CE. Mindful Eating: A Review of How The Stress-Digestion-Mindfulness Triad May Modulate And Improve Gastrointestinal And Digestive Function. Integr Med (Encinitas). 2019;18(4):48-53.
If you are looking for someone to partner with in your health, book a free call with me to see how I can help. I like to think of what I do as Health Coaching meets Healthcare, giving you the support and the expertise to make positive changes in your health!