*I recommended reading a previous blog post, Understanding Stress, in order to better grasp the concepts presented below.
Did you know that HOW you eat is just as important as what you're eating.
In a previous blog post I wrote, Understanding Stress, we discussed the Parasympathetic Nervous System - our mode of rest & digest - and the Sympathetic Nervous System (our fight-or-flight response. In that same post, we also covered how when our bodies are in the Sympathetic state, aka when we're stressed, we can't properly digest food. This is because oxygen and blood are diverted away from the gut, and the body produces less saliva, digestive enzymes, and stomach acid.
Removing stress from our lives, completely, is not realistic but managing our stress around meal times definitely is and could provide a significant shift in your digestion without needed to make changes to your diet.
This is attributed to the fact that the GI tract works best when the mind and body are calm, allowing the majority of circulating blood to go to the abdominal area and allowing the nervous system to focus on digestive functions.
And now, without further ado, the top five ways to encourage a relaxed meal:
1. Leave any problems behind
Whether you're at home and preparing your meal in the comfort of your own kitchen or at a restaurant during your work day, make sure to let go of all stressful thought or activities during mealtime.
One way to do this is by creating a ritual that signifies a transition. Some people like to leave a 'worry jar' on their kitchen counter so that they can visualise putting their stresses or worries in there before sitting down to eat. My ritual involves what I like to call food styling or, in other words, plating my food in an aesthetically pleasing manner, enabling me to focus on the current moment. Plus, I believe that all 'pretty' food incorporates a lot of different colors so by turning my meals into an art form, I am also encouraged to 'eat the rainbow' - a term used to describe the consumption of a variety of colored fruits and veggies.
However, you don't have to get so elaborate with your styling. Whether it be home cooked meal or Chinese Takeout, just arranging your food on a plate and setting the table with silverware can slow you down and create a familiar ritual that brings the body into a calm state, setting a reminder that this is a time for nourishment.
When you set the intention to put all problems and stresses aside and make mealtime sacred, you give the body a chance to relax, which influences your gut, rate of digestion, inflammation, and entire digestive process.
2. Eat Mindfully
If you've ever walked into your home after a long day of work and polished off a full bowl of food without even realizing it, well, you're human! But this tip will be especially helpful for you. Although eating is a very physical activity, our minds often wander off to other faraway thoughts and places, leading to our disconnect from the process of eating and digesting.
Coming back to your body when you eat; savoring each bite and noticing the tastes and textures of your food is a conscious practice of awareness. Many in the wellness world call this practice: Mindful Eating. There are numerous body awareness techniques you can use to become more in tune with your body as you eat. These can be as simple as closing your eyes and taking five deep breaths before starting to eat, paying attention to your breath throughout the meal, or focusing on a calming word or image that gives you a feeling of peace. When i'm feeling especially ravenous and not mindful, one practice that brings me back to my body is focusing on my chewing and, at times, even making sure that I count at least 30 chews for each spoon-full.
Another way is being very mindful of the sensations in your body. Noticing how certain foods make you feel... hot, cold, bloated, more hungry, etc? This inward focus reminds our nervous system that there is no real threats actually present that we are currently in a state of positive nourishment and enjoyment.
3. Express Gratitude
In the past and for many people of faith, today, saying a prayer of gratitude is commonplace prior to every meal. However, for a lot of us, this practice has 'died out'. But please note, expressing gratitude for the beautiful food in front of you doesn't have to be a religious act. Pausing to reflect on the abundance in your life can be very grounding and relaxing; two sensations which set a perfect tone before any meal.
You can either do this just by expressing gratitude in your mind, to yourself for the food you're about to eat. Realizing the abundance in your life, and how lucky you are, will help the body enter a mode of Rest & Digest and, therefore - yep, you guessed it, better digestion.
Another way is to visualize all the work and energy that went into getting your food on to the plate before you. From the seed planted in the soil, to the rain and sun required to make it grow, to the farmers, delivery truck drivers, and workers at the farmers market or shop you bought it from. Quite incredible isn't it?
4. Eat Without Distraction
This one is big one for many and one that most people are often very resistant to. Try creating a work and tech-free zone during mealtimes. This means no business talk, no cell-phones, or pagers (do they still exist?) at the table. Our lives have become so fast paced that many of us take our meal breaks as the perfect opportunity to answer those texts, return those missed calls, or scroll through our social media; all making this rule very easy to break.
However, think about it, how optimal can your digestion be if you're focused on something that is not only a distraction, which in itself can impair the digestive process, but a stressful one, at that.
Besides, if I haven't convinced you yet, just remember this: disconnecting just a short time now will help you be way more productive when you do return to work, later.
5. Dine in Pleasant Surroundings
Set the scene for a calming meal by removing any clutter from the table and maybe playing some chill music or lighting a soothing candle. If the weather's nice out, take your meal outdoors for a pleasant change of scenery.
One of the greatest way to promote pleasant surroundings at mealtimes is by dining with loved ones. Studies have shown that just being around people you love promotes a deep sense of relaxation. The Blue Zones - regions recognized for their longevity - all have different diets and lifestyles. The one common similarity between the four zones was that they frequently share meals with friends and loved ones in some sort of celebratory manner.
And that's all! Remember, you can either stress OR digest. So choose wisely. Let me know in the comments below if you've noticed a difference in your digestion after implementing these easy changes.