Improve Your Digestion Without Changing What You Eat

By Madeline Stewart

For all the information out there about what to eat and what not to eat, there is very little discussion about how to eat. Did you know that how you eat has a huge impact on your digestion, assimilation and utilization of the nutrients in your food? 

Our digestive system is responsible for taking in and breaking down the food that we eat. Through this process, the foods we consume are ideally transformed into usable nutrients; vitamins and minerals are extracted, fats are broken down into lipids, and proteins into amino acids. However, when the digestive system is not functioning optimally, many of these vital nutrients are not extracted from the foods we eat, and therefore the body can not access and utilize them. This means that we can eat the highest quality, properly prepared foods, and still not absorb the nutrients available to fully benefit from these foods. 

Our digestive system is deeply connected to our autonomic nervous system, and therefore the way we eat - and the energetic state that we are in while we eat - has a huge impact on the amount of nutrients we are able to extract from the foods that we eat. The two primary states of the autonomic nervous system are the sympathetic state (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic state (rest and digest). As the nickname for the parasympathetic states suggests, optimal digestion takes place in a parasympathetic state. 

Parasympathetic State:

  • Dilates the blood vessels leading to the GI tract 

  • Directs blood towards the GI tract 

  • Reduces heart rate 

  • Stimulates salivary gland secretion 

  • Accelerates peristalsis

Digestive responses to energetic states:

Sympathetic State:

  • Inhibits digestion 

  • Diverts blood away from the gastrointestinal (GI) tract 

  • Heart rate increases 

  • Constricts all intestinal sphincters 

  • Inhibits peristalsis (contractions of the digestive system that promotes movement of food through the digestive system)

This brief list of responses demonstrates the importance of the state we are in while we eat, and how it can improve or negatively affect our ability to digest, assimilate and use the nutrients in the foods that we eat. The good news is that there are activities and actions that we have control over that determine which state we are in.

Activities and actions that impact our energetic states:

Parasympathetic state:

  • Deep breathing 

  • Relaxation 

  • Media fast 

  • Post-Exercise 

  • Nature exposure 

  • Yawning

Sympathetic state:

  • Stressful thoughts or experiences 

  • Anxiety 

  • Startling experiences 

  • Exercise (during activity)

  • Driving 

  • Being on your phone, computer, or TV

As you can see from above, the activities that cause stress, increased attention demands, and/or distract us away from ourselves all trigger the sympathetic state, and those that cause relaxation, down regulation, and connect us more deeply to ourselves trigger the parasympathetic state. This demonstrates the importance of a stress-free, relaxed and aware state when eating in order to support optimal digestion. 

Here are my top 5 tips for promoting a parasympathetic state while eating:

  1. Stop and sit. Sit down and just eat. This means no eating while walking, driving, working, cleaning, standing in front of the fridge, etc. 

  2. Take 10 breaths before beginning each meal. This one is pretty straight forward. Before beginning any meal (main or snack), stop all other activities and take 10 deep breaths. You can do this with your eyes open or closed.

  3. Chew and savor your food. Slow down and chew each bite thoroughly; try and taste the individual flavors and experience the contrasting textures in your food. 

  4. Eliminate media distractions. Put away your phone, computer, and TV while you are eating and just eat. The phone is probably the trickiest for most people, or the computer if you tend to eat at your desk. Physically separate yourself from them while you eat. Set your phone across the room and move away from the computer!

  5. Slow down. Set your fork down between each bite. Take time to enjoy eating. For tips on how to do this in combination with our Community Element, read this blog post by Melissa. 

BONUS: Sit on the floor. If all else fails, sit down on the floor to eat. Seriously! This actually works. If you are feeling especially stressed out, sitting on the floor can help ground and calm you.

Above all else, be present and enjoy your food.