Most clients who come to me have an interesting relationship with food and eating. Everyone is different, but so many people have a dysfunctional eating environment that does not correspond to how our brain and body tell us that we are full.
If you eat your meals on the go, watch TV or distract yourself in another way, your brain is confused about what to focus on. Your brain relies on signals from your environment to prepare the digestive system for food that comes in. If this environment is stressful, say your attention is on Netflix or an e-mail. Your brain signalling pathway is completely different from what it needs for efficient digestion.
We call our parasympathetic nervous system "Rest & Digest" for a reason. We need to be in a calm state to engage our digestive fire. If not, we are in Fight or Flight, a sympathetic state designed to help us run from a lion, not help us break down a meal and use that nutrition properly.
So during my practice, my clients and I spend a lot of time talking about mindful eating and how they can find 10-15 minutes to sit down with at least one meal a day without the distractions of life. I encourage you to start with your largest meal and make it a slow, relaxed experience.
When we do this, the stomach can talk to the brain and let it know when you are full. I like to recommend eating to 80%, so you leave some room for your stomach to do its thing.
Let's get a little more technical.
Brain and Nervous System
Understanding the similarities and connections between the brain and the digestive system is helpful. The enteric nervous system (ENS) controls the gut, a complex system of about 100 million nerves that monitors every aspect of digestion.
The central nervous system (CNS) strongly influences the ENS with which it communicates through nerve pathways.
The ENS uses many of the same neurotransmitters or chemical messengers as the CNS.
It is important to note that the ENS can lose the external input and connection to the central nervous system and brain, but will still function and regulate GI function - not in a normal, coordinated way, but in such a way that there is ongoing digestive activity.
Thus, the enteric system, often referred to as the "second brain," can operate independently of the brain. Pretty fascinating to consider!
The ENS is embedded in the gut wall and engages in a rich dialogue with the brain during the entire journey of food through the 30-foot long digestive tract. The ENS cells in the lining of the gut communicate with the brain through the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which controls the vital functions of the body. The ANS consists of a sympathetic division called "fight or flight" and a parasympathetic division called "rest and digest."
The gut and brain use their common neurotransmitters, including acetylcholine and serotonin, to transmit information back and forth through the sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves.
The sympathetic nervous system acts faster than the parasympathetic system and moves along very short, fast neurons. Your body undergoes many changes when the sympathetic nervous system activates.
Your heart rate increases.
The bronchial tubes in your lungs dilate, allowing more oxygen intake.
Your pupils dilate for better focus.
Your muscles contract to prepare to fight or flee.
Your saliva production is reduced.
Your stomach stops many functions of digestion.
And lastly, more glycogen is converted to glucose for potential increased energy demands.
The parasympathetic system is a much slower system that moves along longer paths. The parasympathetic response is responsible for controlling homeostasis or the balance and maintenance of the body's systems. It restores the body to a state of calm and counterbalance, and allows it to relax and repair.
The body undergoes several specific responses when the parasympathetic system is activated.
Your saliva is increased.
Digestive enzymes are released.
Your heart rate drops.
The bronchial tubes in your lungs constrict.
Your muscles relax.
The pupils in your eyes constrict.
And your urinary output increases.
All these changes are designed to maintain long-term health, improve digestion, conserve energy and maintain a healthy balance in your body's systems.
This two-way communication system between the gut and brain explains why you stop eating when you are full. Sensory neurons in the gut inform the brain that the stomach is distended.
Or why anxiety about this morning's exam has ruined your appetite for breakfast.
The stress activated the sympathetic nervous system of the "fight or flight," inhibited gastrointestinal secretion and reduced blood flow to the gut. Hopefully, by now you can see how important it is to be in a relaxed state to digest and assimilate the food you consume adequately. It makes a big difference to digestion. The practice of mindful eating is a very effective way to improve digestion and the experience of eating.
So what is mindfulness exactly?
It's deliberately paying attention, being fully aware of what is happening inside and outside yourself - in your body, heart and mind - and outside yourself, in your environment.
Mindfulness is consciousness without criticism or judgment.
While improved digestion is reason enough to use mindful eating strategies, many studies have found that mindful eating can help reduce overeating and binge eating, lose weight and reduce your body mass index (or BMI), cope with chronic eating problems such as anorexia and bulimia, reduce anxious thoughts about food and body, and improve the symptoms of type 2 diabetes. Mindful eating involves paying full attention to the experience of eating and drinking, both inside and outside the body. Pay attention to the colours, smells, textures, flavours, temperatures, and even the sounds of our food. Pay attention to your body's experience.
Where in the body do you feel hunger?
Where do you feel satisfaction?
What does half-full feel like, or three quarters full?
It is also important to pay attention to the mind. When you avoid judgement or criticism, watch when the mind is distracted. Try to pay full attention to what you are eating or drinking.
Notice any impulses that arise after you have taken a few sips or bites. Are you tempted to grab a book, turn on the TV, call or text someone or browse your social media accounts? Notice the impulse and return to just eating. Notice how eating affects your mood, and how emotions such as anxiety affect your eating. Gradually, we regained the sense of ease and freedom with the food we had in childhood. It's our natural birthright. Old habits of eating and not paying attention are not easy to change.
Do not try to make drastic changes.
Lasting change takes time, and is built on many small adjustments.
If I can help in any way, please do not hesitate to email me.
Simon Brazier. Dip HN, NNCP