We’re all guilty of occasional mindless eating – sometimes, there just isn’t time, and we’ve got to grab something on the go. A croissant here, a sandwich there, munched while waiting for the bus or in the car on the way to work. At other times, food goes into our mouth while we’re reading our emails, browsing social media or watching TV. Because it’s there, because it’s a habit, because it’s a comfort. Before we know it, we are shaking the last crumbs out of a bag of crisps and don’t really remember eating them. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that this kind of eating contributes to weight gain and “a lifetime on the hips”.
In this blog we look at how mindful eating and managing stress levels can make a big difference to our digestive health.
Digestion begins in the mind
Before we even put the first bite in our mouth, the digestive system has already started working. It begins when you first think about preparing your food. What are you going to cook? What’s for dinner? Whether it’s a bowl of spag bol you’re thinking about or an elaborate cheese soufflé: Your digestive system is – already at this point – getting the juices running.
You then set about cooking your dinner. You collect what you need, start chopping, sweating an onion, sprinkling spices, and the first waft of your delicious dinner fills the kitchen. Now your stomach really gets going, building up stomach acid for the meal your senses have told it to expect.
As you sit down, put the first forkful of food in your mouth and start to chew, stomach acid rises. Your nose and taste buds signal your brain: “Detecting steak, broccoli and asparagus.” The brain sends the message on to your pancreas, which starts producing the appropriate enzymes required to break down – digest – steak, broccoli and asparagus.
This takes a little time. The secretion of stomach acid, digestive enzymes and bile from the gallbladder to break down fat is not instant, but on the other hand also doesn’t take very long. If you have given them a head start by preparing your own meal (see above) they’re already a little further along than they would be if you had just picked up a take-away or pulled a ready meal out of the freezer. Proper chewing allows a little extra time for your brain to pick up on what you’re eating and for your organs to get ready for digestion.
The digestion of some components of your food – carbohydrates or starches – begins right there, in the mouth. Saliva contains an enzyme called amylase that breaks starches down into sugars. You can even notice that yourself – if you’re mindful: Pop a piece of bread into your mouth and start chewing. Keep going. Before long, you will taste sweetness. That’s the amylase having done the job: the non-sweet starch has turned into sweet sugar, and your taste buds will detect that. Try this with white bread, then a coarse wholegrain bread and time it. You’ll find that the white bread turns sweet much sooner than the wholegrain bread does. Why? The processing of the white flour has broken down the carbohydrate chains of the starch a great deal already so that there is less work to do for your digestive system. These processed carbohydrates become sugar much faster, raising blood sugar levels, triggering insulin, promoting fat-storage.
Lastly, chewing is your last opportunity to actively enhance the digestive process. The more you chew, the greater the surface area will be that your enzymes get to work on once the food arrives. As the unforgettable Gillian McKeith used to say: “Your stomach has no teeth!” Your stomach is going to do its level best to break down the food it receives, using muscle contractions (think washing machine), acid and enzymes, but the better your groundwork has been, the better the result is going to be.
Stress is so much more than just a mental strain (as we described in a blog post just a few weeks ago). It affects many body systems, including digestion.
The stress response is a “fight-or-flight” reaction. Stress hormones signal to our whole body that we are under threat and that action is required. We need to either run or fight. At least that was the original idea, which has worked for millennia when our life and health was very likely to be endangered by a wild animal or falling rocks or a hostile tribe. One of the many results of the hormonal signal is that it brings digestion to a halt so that all of your energy can be directed towards saving your life right now. Within just a few minutes, you’ll be either dead or safe. You can digest then.
However, our stress today does not work like that. Modern stressors very rarely pout our lives in immediate danger, but they are relentless. Now, stress does not last mere minutes, but it never stops. What is the consequence digestion? It is slowed down or put on hold almost permanently. The result is maldigestion, malabsorption, constipation or diarrhoea.
Stress also affects the gut in other ways. The gut lining secretes an antibody called secretory immunoglobulin A (sIgA). sIgA plays a critical role in gut immunity, providing protection against potentially harmful microbes, due to its ability to resist degradation (i.e. digestion) by enzymes, allowing it to reside in harsh environments such as the gut. It is the first line of defence against bacteria, yeasts, parasites, viruses and food residues. Chronic stress suppresses the secretion of sIgA, leaving the gut lining exposed and susceptible to infection and inflammation.
Lastly, stress alters the composition of the gut microbiota – and not in a good way. Unsurprisingly, it reduces the number and species of desirable gut microbes, allowing undesirable ones to proliferate. This puts us at risk of infection, inflammation, digestive problems, increased intestinal permeability (“Leaky Gut”) and food intolerances. It doesn’t even stop there. Via the gut-brain axis, the gut microbes also affect our mood and mental health.
Mindful eating for better digestion
Here are our top tips for mindful eating that you can put into practice straightaway:
1. Eat whole (unprocessed) food
If you follow our blog, you have read those words a few times already. In the context of mindful eating for digestion eating whole food means that you have to prepare your own meals. In the process of preparation, your digestive system gets ready for action.
2. Sit down at a table
If you are stressed and are eating while walking or driving, your body is under the impression that you are on the run, and that is clearly not a good time to digest. Make it a habit to only eat at a table – not your desk, not your couch, not your car. Take a few deep breaths before you start eating. This turns down your sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”) and activates your parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”).
3. Focus on what you are doing
Mindless eating often means that we eat more than we need and more than we intended, because we are not tuned into our body’s signals and don’t get the message that we are full. Turn off the TV, put away your phone, laptop or tablet, even the newspaper, and just eat. Take the time to make a conscious note of what your food looks and smells like and what it feels like in your mouth. Enjoy it with all your senses. Stop when you are full. And …
Chew until your food is almost liquid, until if you were to spit it out, nobody would be able to tell what you have eaten. Then, and only then, is it ready to be swallowed. As an added bonus, you will be eating more slowly, giving your brain the time to receive the “full” signal from the gut.
If at all possible, go for a little walk after your meal. Just a relaxed 15-minute stroll can make all the difference. Studies have shown that movement after meals can help your body get the most from the food and improve your metabolism. As a bonus, movement also makes us feel good, spurs on your creativity (so who can say it is a waste of time?) and exposes you to light and sunshine. It’s summer now – there’s no excuse to get out there.
I hope that we have convinced you that there is a lot you can do to help or hinder your digestive processes. Mindful eating is your active contribution to a well-functioning digestive system. As the gut is the root of our health that is a very worthwhile endeavour.
If you are interested in our interactive Mindful Eating or Digestive Health webinars, please call us on 07966 478974.