Anecdotally, we have all heard of stress or anxiety's impact on our gut. Some have referred to this as "butterflies" in our tummy, or other variations. I personally have an obtrusive physiological response to stress. It seems that when I am feeling anxiety or stress, the butterflies in my stomach make a little whistling noise… I kid you not. I noticed this for the first time when I was taking my senior practicum class in college. It was a small, intimate class of all seven seniors majoring in Philosophy. Close quarters, after dinner, for three hours, talking "On What Matters." All of the sudden, tiny little whistling noises would erupt from my stomach. And of course, the embarrassment of realizing the whistling was coming from me made it all the worse. I spent the whole semester attempting to mentally prepare myself for that class to avoid the whistling but to no avail. The whistling always came. The same thing happened when I started dating my husband. Every date we went on. Whistling. When he asked about it, I just told him that it was something my stomach did every day. He now knows the real reason. Thankfully, the response we affectionately dubbed, "nervous tummy," has since disappeared from our relationship. We all know from our experiences (like mine) that our mental states impact our gut somehow. But we don't always consider how these mental states impact us at the dinner table through our digestive system.
Introduction to the key player: The Autonomic Nervous System
It can be helpful at this point to know a little bit about your nervous system to demonstrate just how our mindset might impact our wellbeing. The key player that I will talk about is your autonomic nervous system. All you really need to know for our purposes is that the autonomic nervous system is a part of your nervous system that deals with involuntary regulation of your organs. For example, the rate at which you breathe, or the rate at which your heart beats, or the dilation and constriction of your pupils, or how much glucose is in your blood stream. These are all systems in your body that you do not actively think about controlling. In fact, you would die if you had to consciously control them. Imagine having to tell yourself when to breathe. What if you fell asleep? How would your body know when to breathe? It wouldn't… Rarely, people are born with this condition and they actually die from sleep deprivation (not asphyxiation as one might think). This is a bit of a detour, but I point it out as an incredible reminder of how amazing our bodies are! Never take for granted all the things that your body does for you without you even being aware of it.
"Rest and Digest" versus "Fight or Flight"
Your autonomic nervous system has two branches: the sympathetic nervous system and the
parasympathetic nervous system. No need to remember the names if you don't want to. Majority of the world will also refer to these branches in terms of their functions. The sympathetic nervous system is associated with your "fight or flight" response and the parasympathetic is associated with your "rest and digest" response. For example, when your body is in "fight or flight" mode, your autonomic nervous system uses the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) to dilate your pupils, increase your heart rate, produce stress hormones, send glucose out of your liver and into your bloodstream; all things that would be helpful to you if you were actually fighting or fleeing. Dilated pupils let more light in to see, increased heart rate allows oxygen to travel to your extremities faster, glucose in the blood stream is used by your body for energy, likewise stress hormones amp up all these factors. However, the fight or flight response also does things like reduce saliva production, decrease gastric juice secretion and gut motility; all things necessary for digestion. When your body is in "rest and digest" mode, however, the opposite biological responses occur: increased saliva production, increased secretion of gastric juices, increased gut motility, etc. Your body is perfectly ready to sit and enjoy a meal.
Which mode am I in?
So how does our body know when to be in rest and digest or flight or flight mode? Well, sitting in the drivers seat of the autonomic nervous system taxi is your limbic system (the part of your brain associated with emotion, memory, etc.). In other words, your emotion center is in charge of whether your body is functioning in fight or flight mode or rest and digest. The problem is that for most people in the western world, stress manifests itself differently than it did hundreds of years ago. It is not often that we need to fight someone or flee a situation. Rather, the constant onslaught of our daily stressors (work, school, kids, home, family, etc.) keep our body in a constant state of preparedness to fight or flee. Likewise, it remains in a state that is not optimal for digesting and receiving nourishment from the foods we are eating.
While this is an incredibly simplistic understanding of what is going on, it becomes increasingly apparent that your emotions, or mindset, has something to do with how well your body is able to digest food. When your body is in stress-mode, it is not ready to take full advantage of the nourishment you are trying to give it. This could be why eating healthy doesn't always fix the problems we think it will, why we over eat, or don't feel satiated, etc. This could mean that for all the time and effort you put into eating healthy, the added stress that you are placing on yourself to eat healthy may actually be working against your wellbeing. This is not to say that you shouldn't try to eat well. This is also not to say that you should avoid all of life's stressors. Rather, consider how these stressors might be impacting you and determine if there are better ways that you can cope or mitigate those stressors.
How to prepare your body for eating
So how do you work with your body for your nourishment at the dinner table? Well, here are a few things you can try to help prepare your body for the joy of eating, resting and digesting:
Don't eat on the go - guilty!
Don't eat while working - so, so guilty!
Leave areas of stress or work when you eat
Take a few deep breaths before you eat
Drink a glass of water before you eat
Actually think about how delicious your meal will be (this increases your saliva production)
Give thanks for your food before eating it. Appreciate where it has come from and what it can do for you.
Eat with people! - community and connection have a profound effect that goes far beyond nourishment. This may be the best thing you can do for yourself by far!
A Milkshake Experiment
I'll leave you with a fascinating study from 2011 that NPR recently wrote an article on. It describes how what we actually think about our food effects our physiological response to our food. This is just one of the many potential factors that contribute to our digestion (or lack thereof) and demonstrates that our mind is just as much involved in our nourishment as our digestive system.