The foods we eat can either facilitate healing or contribute to illness and inflammation. But, it is not just what we eat that matters, how we eat is also essential for the cultivation health. Are you hurried when you eat? Are you angry? Anxious? Resentful? Sad? Feeling worthless? What is your state of mind when you eat, and why does it matter?
Currently, over 200 million health care visits per year in the United States are for people with digestive problems, such as irritable bowel, gastro-esophageal reflux, indigestion, inflammatory bowel conditions, colitis, diarrhea, constipation, bloating and just plain abdominal pain. In our fast-paced society, our bodies – particularly our digestive systems – are reeling with the repercussions of stress.
We know intuitively that stress affects the digestive system. But, how does it work? As far as your nervous system is concerned, there are two dominant modes: stressed and relaxed. When you perceive stress, your sympathetic nervous system becomes activated and powers a “fight-or-flight” response. During this stress response, hormones and peptides, such as adrenaline and cortisol, pump through the body resulting in decreased support for digestion. At the same time, the heart speeds up to pound blood to the skeletal muscles enabling you to escape, or face, whatever danger is perceived. Once the danger is over, however, the nervous system is supposed to return to a more relaxed state, which is controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system. Close your eyes, and picture something serene. Breathe deeply for 10 breaths. You have just activated the parasympathetic system. The peptides and hormones released in this state result in improved digestion. Healing, growth, regeneration, and renewal all happen more effectively when the body is in the relaxed parasympathetic state.
When we experience chronic unremitting stress, the sympathetic system strengthens, similar to the way a muscle is strengthened when you exercise it. When this happens, the parasympathetic nervous system pathways become weaker with under-usage. There are many repercussions from this resulting imbalance including, chronic inflammation, impaired healing, and improper digestion. Therefore, to facilitate healing, we must retrain and remind our bodies to operate in the more relaxed, parasympathetic mode. This is especially true during mealtimes.
Habits, however, can be difficult to change. This is where mindfulness can help. By developing mindfulness, we step outside of our habituated subconscious habits and can become aware of both the food we are eating, as well as the conditions of our bodies when we eat.
A calm, peaceful, and grateful state of mind can create a state of being that then shifts our bodies biochemically. This helps the body to operate in a way that more effectively absorbs, processes, and utilizes the food we eat.
One of the easiest ways to facilitate relaxation in our bodies during mealtime is to enjoy our food. I have come to believe that joy is an essential nutrient that we can add to our meals. Food can be beautiful and delicious and the experience of eating can be filled with so much joy. When we eat with joy, we help our bodies to relax and we help to enhance our digestion and capacity for regeneration and renewal. Plus… it makes eating a whole lot more fun!