Appropriate state … when you eat
The Autonomic Nervous System regulates your organ systems (heart, digestion, immune, elimination, etc.) and certain glands. This part of the nervous system functions to organize the processes that are needed to navigate a typical day’s activity. Digesting a meal, taking a nap, running down the street, or giving a presentation at work all require various levels of involvement by different systems. The autonomic nervous system acts as an air traffic controller that helps you relate to your ever-changing environment and its demands.
Create Calm Before You Eat
- Your nervous system is designed to operate in one of two modes at any given moment: ‘rest mode‘ or ‘go time‘.
This system is sub-divided into two parts, the ‘Brakes’ (Parasympathetic System) and the ‘Gas’ (Sympathetic System). The brakes are applied when it is time to slow down – for rest, repair, digestion and reproduction. The gas is engaged when it’s time to move.
Known as the ‘Fight or Flight’ response system, the gas is activated when we are stressed and need to act. These physiologic states are opposites. Your state can be altered by a stimulus. A stimulus can come from your external environment, such as the smell of garlic or a charging rhino.
Sometimes the stimulus may come from inside your body or mind, like a pleasant memory or a disturbing thought. The input is registered, and your body responds readily and appropriately to the stimulus.
The body’s response is associated with appropriate hormonal changes. Hormones are powerful chemicals produced by our bodies that influence organ functions, prioritize focus and energy distribution, and even affect our thoughts and feelings.There are hormones that excite us and hormones that calm us down.
When we sit down to eat, we should be in the calm state.
We want the brakes system engaged when we eat – in this state we are able to enjoy, digest and process foods appropriately. Too often though, we are in the ‘Go Mode’.
Our modern lives are incredibly fast paced and demanding – it often seems that we’re constantly at full throttle. This chronically stressed state creates constantly elevated stress hormone levels (think cortisol). Stress hormones impact every facet of our bodily functions – especially digestion.
Cortisol is the fight or flight hormone that keeps our muscles flexed, our blood pressure elevated, and our digestive tract slow and sluggish. This makes a lot of sense in the context of survival. If we are acutely stressed (chased by a lion) and need to focus our body on escaping real danger, we do not want to spend energy on digesting lunch – we are trying to avoid being lunch. When the Go System is active, your physiology is geared to run away from a lion, not stop and eat – or go to the bathroom, or have sex, for that matter. All processes of digestion are upset.
Insulin is also a potent stress hormone. Insulin is known by the moniker ‘The Fat Storage Hormone’. If insulin remains elevated – you remain in the fat storage mode. So if you find yourself struggling with indigestion, reflux, weight gain or constipation, consider your state at meal times.
Are you stressed out, under the gun, and eating on the run? No wonder you’re having difficulty. Healthy people slow down to eat. We practice mindfulness when eating. Don’t chow down – instead, sit down and slow down. A best practice for changing state before eating is changing your location. Don’t eat at your desk or in the car. Sit at the table; don’t stand at the breakfast bar. Stop multi-tasking (put your phone away – look out the window).
Research supports the fact that mindless eating is a sure path to indigestion, overeating and obesity.
A vital behavior for achieving the desire state for digestion is deep breathing before meals. Take 3 deep, diaphragmatic breaths before eating. This discipline will reset your physiology and move your body toward the ideal state for digestion. Breathe, relax and enjoy your lunch. There is no lion, I promise.