When it comes to improving our health, nutrition is of course one of the first things we should look at. Having a balanced diet, which includes optimal amounts of all the essential micronutrients as well as avoiding refined and processed foods, is key to ensure we are getting what we need. However, what if not only what we eat but how we eat could make a significant difference to our health? The awareness we bring to each mouthful and the surroundings in which we sit down to have our meal can play a large role in how we digest and metabolise our food. Studies show how our digestive processes are especially sensitive to chronic stress, demonstrating changes in blood flow to intestinal tissues, gastric secretions and gut motility .The popular saying ‘you are what you eat’ may not ring so true after all… This should perhaps be swapped for ‘you are what you absorb’. After all, you could be eating a relatively good diet, but what if you weren’t actually assimilating the nutrients properly due to eating whilst in an anxious state?
For a lot of us, the luxury of being able to eat our lunch away from our desk or not rushed whilst traveling in between meetings is rare. How many of us who have a busy work schedule actually take time to sit down and fully enjoy our midday meal? There is increasing evidence to show how mindfulness-based practices can have a big impact on stress reduction, awareness of hunger and satiety levels in studies performed with people who suffer with disordered and emotional eating . Mindfulness is becoming more and more popular in helping to address mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders, as an alternative to Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, as well as other popular medications. The ancient practice that dates back to 2500 years ago can be traced to Buddhist psychology, although it is also found in other eastern traditions. Its underlying purpose in its ancient context was to eliminate needless suffering by cultivating insights into the workings of the mind, and it was believed that by doing so one could remove deep rooted negative internal dialogues, which ultimately lead to unhappiness .
When we eat it is imperative that we are relaxed. In order to optimise our digestive function, our parasympathetic nervous system should be activated. In other words, we must be in a “rest and digest” state where our digestive system is ready to receive food as it has had the correct signals from our brain. These signals cue the lining in our stomach to secrete hydrochloric acid, our pancreas to release its digestive enzymes and the liver to secrete bile into the intestines. All these functions are essential to correctly metabolise our nutrients as well as kill off pathogenic bacteria and other toxins in the food we eat. When we are stressed or anxious, our sympathetic nervous system activates, this is our ‘‘fight or flight” mode, when all the blood travels away from our intestines to our peripheral muscles, glucose is released from tissues into the bloodstream to deliver energy and our heart rate increases. This gets us ready to engage in adrenalin-filled activity. Not exactly useful when we are eating.
Mindfulness based practices such as bringing our awareness to our breathing or sensations in our body have been proven to be successful relaxation methods as well as having the ability to improve markers of health. In a recently published study, these techniques were introduced to a community of adults who were stressed and unemployed. The study revealed how mindfulness exercises decreased a marker of inflammatory diseases called Interleukin (IL) – 6, which has been strongly associated to chronic conditions such as Major Depressive Disorder . A review of 14 studies that investigated mindfulness meditation as the primary intervention for eating disorders, also demonstrated a significant reduction in binge eating and emotional eating in populations engaging in this behaviour . Lastly, there are countless studies demonstrating mindfulness as a successful method to reduce IBS symptoms, in particular its ability to teach people ‘nonreactivity to gut-focused anxiety and catastrophic appraisals of the significance of abdominal sensations’. The therapy allowed them to refocus their attention into the interoceptive awareness of the body without allowing emotions to interfere, which ultimately prevented the symptoms from becoming worse .
It’s safe to say there is no shortage of evidence to show how this simple ancient technique and other relaxation techniques can help us manage stress and therefore improve digestion. It’s time to listen to our bodies, take an hour away from our computers and phones to really engage with what we are eating so we can optimise our chances of assimilating the nutrition in our food. Our digestive system is essentially an interface between the external world and our internal environment, so it is no surprise that many health problems, including mental health conditions, are significantly affected by the health of our gut.