If you’ve ever felt those butterflies in your belly before a stressful situation, you know firsthand that the digestive system is your “second brain”: your gray matter and your gut are essentially like middle school classmates, constantly passing notes back and forth. Your brain sends along signals to your enteric nervous system, which regulates digestion. So when we feel stressed out or worried, this can manifest as diarrhea, gas, nausea or those pretty little winged insects. And it works both ways, too–one reason why when you get food poisoning after eating undercooked salmon, you might avoid salmon for years to come. Studies even show that people who have experienced traumatic brain injury are at risk of gut dysfunction (ie. an overgrowth of harmful bacteria, inflammation and infections) due to the vagus nerve connection–this is the main communication highway linking the gut and the brain, sometimes called the brain-gut-microbiota axis.
This is why one of the main recommendations for people suffering with IBS and other gut issues is to also address emotional regulation through strategies like stress management, therapy, meditation, hypnosis, etc.
And eating in a relaxed state actually helps us digest and assimilate our food better, too. If we’re anxious–or even distracted–we’re essentially in a “fight or flight” mode, and digestion can pretty much shut down to help us focus on more important things, like running away from a lion. One study from 1987, published in the journal Gastroenterology, supports and highlights this concept. Participants were given two different mineral-based drinks. They drank the first one in a relaxed state and absorbed 100% of the nutrients. With the second drink, two researchers spoke to each participant at the same time, one in each ear–one about space travel and the other about financial planning. This drink was absorbed at a much lower rate that lasted an hour afterward. Any outside stimuli can be perceived by your body in the same way, so if you’re rushing to finish lunch in your car on your way to a meeting, or quickly downing breakfast before heading to your son’s soccer game while juggling a phone call, your body will consider digestion less of a priority and slow down enzyme production and increase stomach acid, leading to gas, bloating, heartburn, indigestion, constipation or diarrhea.
So, practicing mindful eating techniques such as the ones below can all help with the goal of healthy digestion, which leads to a healthy body.
- Chewing more
- Putting your fork down between bites
- Stopping midway through a meal and taking a break
- Eating with others
- Eating without distraction
Try them and let us know if you’re feeling stronger, more comfortable in your body and having less digestive distress. We’d love to hear from you!