Yes, “You are what you eat”, but it is more accurate to say "You are what you absorb". Proper absorption of the nutrients we eat and drink is a critical component of digestion, dare I say the most important!
Digestion is a complex process involving many different organs that need to work in harmony. A key question to consider is: Where does digestion begin? Most people tend to say the stomach, while others might think of the mouth, but actually it is higher up in the brain. Digestion is a North-to-South process. Our sensory perception of food, even before tasting it, begins to prepare the body for eating and digesting. And when we are stressed, we do not digest well. Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system which sends blood and energy to our heart and peripheral muscles (and away from digestive organs). This is an evolutionary safeguard in case we need to take flight, fight, or freeze to protect ourselves. While we don't have saber-toothed tigers lurking around these days (thankfully), stress in the mind still activates these protective body mechanisms and digestion is impaired. We need to turn off the sympathetic response in order for the parasympathetic system to work so we can "rest and digest". But how do we do this?
Here are 10 simple steps we can take to prepare the body and mind for optimal digestion and absorption:
1) Create a Calm Environment: At the most basic level this means sitting down to eat. Try to avoid eating while standing, walking, eating while driving or in a car. Put a single flower in a vase or light a candle to create a little beauty for your meal.
2) Settle In: Take a few deep slow breaths. Let the belly expand with the inhale and relax with a slow exhale. Deep breathing calms the nervous system and prepares the body for resting and digesting.
3) Express Gratitude: Take a moment to thank the earthly elements (sun, rain, soil) and the human elements (many hands) that were involved in putting food on your plate.
4) Look, Smell and Salivate: Appreciate the colors, intentionally smell your food and notice your hunger. This sensory awareness triggers the brain to get the tongue salivating and ready for not just tasting but digesting food. Saliva contains salivary amylase which starts the process of breaking down carbs.
5) Chew Each Bite to Liquid: This is a tough one for most people! We habitually chew just a few times and then swallow. Big chunks of food are difficult for our stomach to break down. Remember there are no teeth in your stomach! Many people are deficient in stomach acid which makes it all the more challenging to break food down. Undigested large food particles irritate our gut lining. Whether you chew fast or slowly, remember to chew extra well.
6) Slow Down and Notice: Set your silverware down between bites. Try eating with your non-dominant hand. Notice the textures and flavors in your mouth. When the mind wanders, bring it back to the immediate experience of tasting, chewing, and swallowing.
7) Avoid Tech & Tension: TV, phones, books, magazines, podcasts, loud music...we live in a multi-tasking culture. It is so rare these days to just enjoy the process of eating the simple pleasure of tasting our food. Consider choosing one meal a day to eat mindfully without distractions. Yes, the mind will jump around, but when you notice that you've been thinking about past or future, gently bring it back to your experience of food. When eating with others, try to hold off or change topics that stir up tension because stress in the mind creates stress in the body and this impairs digestion.
8) Avoid Over-Eating: Stuffing your stomach too full is like putting too many clothes into a washing machine. There’s no room for the movement of soap and water and the clothes don’t get clean. It’s an analogy to the food in your belly, because if it’s packed in there then digestives juices can’t move around to coat the food particles for breakdown.
9) Relax for 5 minutes after eating: Don’t get up right after your last bite. Sit for a bit. Bring your awareness back to your breath and the rise and fall of the belly. Notice the sensations of fullness. Be grateful for having this food to nourish your body.
10) Avoid Snacking: Yes, snacks are fun but we too often eat when food is randomly presented to us or we are bored. Eating when we aren’t hungry leads to poor digestion. Our digestive system has a Migrating-Motor-Complex that completes it’s cycle roughly every 90 minutes (kind of like a dishwasher cycle). We need at least 2 good rounds to clean out food debris and prevent bacterial overgrowth. Try to give your system at least 3 hours with no food additions for this cleansing cycle to be complete.
While it would be nice to be able to practice all of these steps all the time, the reality is we have busy on-the-go lifestyles. Start with 1 or 2 of these tips, write them on a yellow sticky and post it where you eat most of your meals as a reminder to pause before you start eating. Your belly will thank you in being able to absorb nutrients better!