I think that we can all agree that our current society is easily distracted. Endlessly scrolling through our newsfeed, stopping to watch every cat video or humorous, yet cringe-inducing sports injury.
We are so habituated to constant stimulation nowadays that it doesn’t take much for our attention to go elsewhere. Surprisingly enough our digestion process works in a very similar way.
Bite, chew and swallow. That’s how we are taught to eat, right? While the act of eating seems incredibly simple, there is so much more going on behind the scenes. Enter the autonomic nervous system.
The Two Faces of the Digestion Process
The autonomic nervous system has two divisions: the sympathetic mode and the parasympathetic mode. The sympathetic division of the nervous system responds to stress. This is our “fight or flight” response.
It focuses on what your body needs to do right now for survival: increasing heart rate, dilating the pupils, and creating thermal energy, all while decreasing the digestive rate and inhibiting peristalsis.
When we are in a sympathetic dominant mode, all of our energy is rushed to the brain, heart and muscles to combat a threat. In doing so, the actions of our sympathetic nervous system push all menial tasks aside.
The problem with that is our physiological reactions to non-immediate stresses are largely the same as when we’re actually fighting for survival.
Sure, it can be pretty stressful when you have to break up with someone, but it’s not quite the same as having to escape from the car they set on fire.
Since the response is very similar no matter what the stressor is, it can be incredibly taxing on the whole body over time.
This can lead to high blood pressure, suppression of your immune system and digestive problems.
Since every ying needs a yang, to balance the sympathetic system we have the the parasympathetic nervous system. This system regulates our “rest and digest” response, or what some call “feed and breed”.
Say you’re at work, and you know that (enter personal dietary vice here) is waiting for you in the break room fridge. This could be a steak or a doughnut, or in the case of the breeding inclination of the parasympathetic system, your mate at home – no judgment here!
The more you want it, the more your body will prepare to ingest and digest it. Blood will flow towards those digestive (and reproductive) organs, enzymes will secrete, and your mouth will salivate. This is your body entering parasympathetic dominance.
This system acts on the same organs as the sympathetic system, but with a different, complementary effect.
It decreases the rate of the heart and respiration rate, while increasing the flow of blood to digestive organs, reproductive organs and inducing peristalsis (the involuntary muscle contractions that move food along the digestive tract).
We need to be in parasympathetic dominance in order for digestion to properly occur.
Slow Down & Give the Digestion Process a Rest
Now, when I mentioned that our physiological reactions to non-immediate stresses are largely the same as when we are fighting for survival, it couldn’t be truer.
Walking, standing, reading, watching TV – all of these tasks involve our attention and energy. We are in action and sympathetic dominant.
And as we just learned, while in sympathetic dominance all digestion processes stop.
We aren’t paying attention to chewing our food completely, our digestive enzymes are insufficient and there is no peristalsis to help move the assimilated food through the digestive tract. Everything halts until you do.
We live in a fast paced time. We are usually on the go and it seems necessary to multitask. I know I can be guilty of quickly eating my breakfast while standing over the kitchen sink! But there are a few suggestions I can make that will take a load off your digestive system with some simple modifications:
• Eat in a calm, relaxed setting – Taking just a few minutes to slow your roll, sit down, and focus the task at hand – nourishing your body – will activate parasympathetic mode.
• Chew your food completely – The process of digestion begins in the mouth. When we swallow, the food we just finished chewing should be near liquid (the fancy, science term for this is bolus, once the mass is swallowed). This mixes the food with salivary amylase-rich saliva and begins carbohydrate digestion. This will also help stimulate digestive secretions further down the road.
• Eat well – For your highly individual needs, you require adequate protein, high quality fats, high fiber carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, and whole grains) and adequate water to repair.
• Take digestive enzymes – Simply put, not everyone produces a sufficient amount of necessary digestive enzymes naturally, so support can be extremely beneficial in assimilation of food and prevent post-meal discomfort. A high-quality digestive enzyme supplement like Digestech can help relieve that discomfort and aid your body in breaking down food effectively.
• Choose wisely – Avoid foods that bother your digestion. If you know that dairy or wheat sits like a brick and causes upset, don’t eat it!
• Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate – Pure water, herbal tea, and fresh juices provide the fluids and minerals needed to complete digestion and absorption.
• Consider pre and probiotics – When the intestinal flora ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy! Having imbalanced bacteria in the GI tract can host an array of internal issues: gas and decreased elimination, inflammation and leaky gut, SIBO, systemic viruses, weakened immune system, depression, and even joint health. The list of benefits is even longer!
• Breathe – Before and during. Simple, right? If you pay attention to your breath, you’ll notice how shallow it typically is. Breathing deeply and slowly has immediate benefits, including quieting down your fired up sympathetic nervous system system.
At the end of the day, the human body needs homeostasis. It wants to find balance to heal and for us to thrive. It can do some pretty amazing things, but the secret is that we must fuel it properly in order to greet and overcome challenges.
Slow down, be mindful, and for the sake of your digestion: don’t be so sympathetic.