Bloating, cramping, gas, and diarrhea — as a health coach, I spend a lot of my day talking about these things! My clients often experience such intense digestive issues that it’s frequently what pushes them to finally seek support. I get it! No one wants to feel like they might crap their pants on the highway (or while camping, guilty!), or like they’re totally distracted all day by tightness in their abdomen, or like they don’t know what to expect when they step into a bathroom shared by coworkers. It isn’t news that digestion is a key indicator of our health—poor digestion is almost always goes hand in hand with autoimmune conditions.
Many of my clients show up seeking big, sweeping solutions to their digestion issues. They often see food as the problem and so they want to get big diagnostic tests that spit out answers that say “avoid this food and this food and your digestive issues will be solved!” While this is a great part of a plan for many folks, the truth is that there’s a lot we can do to improve our digestion without having to take a single test—it’s all about shifting our mindset while we eat.
Wait…back it up. There is a mental state that’s ideal for digestion? Yes, you heard me right! When our autonomic nervous system is ready to “rest, digest, and heal,” it means our parasympathetic state is engaged. We’ve talked before about how important this state is for healing in general, but today I want to share its importance for digestion.
Stress Sabotages Digestion
We want our body to be in a parasympathetic state during mealtime. This means you’re not actively stressing or worrying about anything, you’re in a calm, open, and peaceful state: your heart rate and blood pressure are in a normal range, and your body is ready to receive all the nutrients and satiation of the food you’re eating. Activation of the parasympathetic nervous system supports digestion by stimulating the flow of saliva, initiating peristalsis movement of the stomach, aiding in the production of stomach secretion, and signaling to the liver to release bile acid.
When we are in a stressed (sympathetic) state the body prioritizes energy and blood to our arms and legs, moving it away from our internal organs, including our digestive tract. It makes sense, right? Digestion is hardly essential when we are fighting for our lives. However, even in a moderate or chronic stress response, like our to-do list for the day or our constant self-criticism, the digestive system is still impacted. When we’re eating in such a state of worry or anxiety, our ability to digest, assimilate and metabolize our food is hugely compromised.
The reality that our stress response holds such a powerful influence over our digestion and metabolism is a principal we just can’t overlook when we are trying to improve digestion. If our sympathetic nervous system is activated during mealtime and we are existing in a fight or flight mode as we ingest, even with the healthiest foods on our plates, our body simply can’t fully utilize the nutrition.
Be honest: how often are you in a calm mindset while eating?
Make Eating About Nourishment
So many of us spend our mealtimes multitasking. Eating is something we layer on top of and around doing other things. And it’s no wonder: in a culture where drive-through food is the norm and everything comes in a to-go container, there’s no need to slow down for eating! Add in the stressors of autoimmune disease and the anxiety of wondering whether what you’re putting in your body is going to harm you or heal you and…let’s just say thorough digestion is your body’s last priority. It’s working hard just to survive!
The truth is, food is never just about food. We wrap it up in so much emotion, and this can make it a huge distraction from other, bigger underlying issues we might be avoiding. Here’s an example: how often have you made food into a vehicle for shame in your life? Or guilt? Or anxiety? When we do this, we sabotage our body’s ability to optimize the nutrition we get from our food.
Consider this shift: when you’re in relationship with food, you don’t use it to shut down, or check out. Eating is an opportunity to be present with ourselves. Whether we are enjoying delicious AIP friendly foods or find ourselves straying from the virtuous path — we get to be calm and present, enjoying food no matter what we choose. If you’re eating a gluten-free, dairy-free Newman O’s cookie (or whatever a treat might be for you) — enjoy the hell out of that cookie! Why would you want to be thinking, “I have no self control, this is bad for me, I am going to pay for this later, what’s wrong with me?!?” while enjoying a sweet treat?
That toxic mindset is going to hurt you much more than one cookie ever could. Try this on for size: “I really love the crunch of this cookie, it’s so tasty with a glass of non-dairy milk, I love indulging in a small snack. YUM!” I bet you’ll find that you eat fewer cookies instead of a whole sleeve, because you are actually getting the emotional benefits of a treat!
So: if we can slow our minds and our bodies down to create an ideal environment for digestion, we stand to relieve a lot of uncomfortable symptoms. I’ve seen clients relieve bloating, constipation, cramps, gas, and diarrhea in significant ways with these strategies. And the bonus is, it doesn’t cost you anything to try them out.
Step One: Notice How We Feel
Do a body scan before you eat. It may seem strange, but asking yourself how your heart and mind are doing before you put food in your body is a great practice to begin at your next meal or snack. Remember, your body digests better when you are in a calm and peaceful state. Just notice how you’re feeling without any judgment. Are you stressed? Calm? Excited? Where do these emotions show up in how you’re physically feeling? Take note.
If you notice that you’re consistently anxious, distracted, or upset when you eat—and you struggle with an unhappy digestive system—give these tips a try!
Tips to Leverage a Parasympathetic State During Meals
- Chew food slowly and mindfully. Actually chew! Enjoy the process of mastication, savor the taste of your food, and take note of its texture. We resist joy all the time, but there is true pleasure in a really, really good meal. Find it. Take note. Be grateful for the food in front of you without feeling guilty about it.
- ONLY eat. Put down or step away from other tasks. Don’t eat while driving, while answering e-mail, scrolling on your phone, or while running to your next meeting. Create the mental space to nourish yourself—even if it’s only for 20 minutes.
- Breathe. 4-7-8 breathing (as recommended by Dr. Andrew Weil) is a time-tested technique for accessing a parasympathetic state quickly and easily. Even if this is the only tip you try, I’m convinced everyone can see benefits from stopping and taking a few intentional breaths before eating.
- Set down your obsession for a few minutes. So many of my clients worry endlessly about food. Give yourself permission not to worry while you’re eating. See how it feels to catch yourself when you are spending time in a space of fear that no matter what you’re eating, you might “pay for it” later. Tap into the trust that you are gathering information to make yourself well and your body is going to give you all the feedback you need.
- See mealtime as a time for nourishment. Even if it’s a just a quick lunch break during the workday, we have the opportunity to practice self love each and every time we eat. Take a break from deadlines or your list of tasks and make it a time to connect with yourself.
- Press pause on stressful conversations. This may seem self-evident within the overall goal of reducing stress during meals, but I’ve found it warrants its own point. Many of my clients consistently strive to sit down with their partner or family for meals, but it ends up being a time of logistical conversations, problem-solving, or frustration. Meals are a wonderful time to connect with those we love, and it’s important to prioritize that connection. Save the stressful conversation for while you’re doing the dishes. 😉
- Check in with your inner dialogue. Whatever tapes you’re running in your head during mealtime, make sure they are telling a story that supports calm, peace, and trust.
I’d love to hear how this practice resonates in your life. Do you notice that you have a consistent mindset while eating? What emotions are you making food a vehicle for? Have you tried making a mindset shift while eating, and has it worked for you? Please share in the comments!