You know those mornings you wake up with your stomach in knots? Maybe you had one too many drinks at the party last night or you overindulged in sweets during your afternoon energy-dip at the office. The next day, you wake up with a stomach ache and your mood immediately tanks.
Separate from food-related stomach aches, do you remember that debilitating nausea you experienced when you had your first break up? Or those butterflies when you got back in the game and finally found someone who wasn’t a weirdo? The connection between body and mind is never quite as clear as when we experience firsthand the link between our belly and our emotional state. The good news: there are ways to understand and help improve this connection through mindful eating.
Understanding that “Gut Feeling”
As you see from the examples above, the gut can influence the brain and vice versa. This feedback loop is called the gut-brain axis (GBA). The GBA is a communication system between the central (brain and spinal cord) and enteric (gastrointestinal) nervous systems. In fact, your gut is often called your second brain because it can control gut behavior independently of the brain. And, just like your brain, the enteric nervous system uses more than 30 different neurotransmitters including 95% of the body’s serotonin, the happy neurotransmitter. In short: happy belly, happy you!
So, how exactly do we make our bellies happy? Part of the answer has to do with gut bacteria. Improving the healthy microbiota (bacteria) in your body can help strengthen digestion and keep things running smoothly. Another powerful way healthy microbiota can help is by preventing and treating anxiety and depression. When unhealthy bacteria outnumber healthy bacteria in your digestive tract, an imbalance occurs. This imbalance has been linked to conditions including anxiety, depression, and irritable bowel syndrome.
If that wasn’t enough to prove the connection between the brain and gut, here is another example: Leaky gut syndrome. Leaky gut syndrome, also called intestinal permeability, is caused by damage to the intestinal lining. Damage can be caused by food irritants, excessive caffeine or alcohol consumption, chronic use of NSAIDs (aspirin, ibuprofen) and the big culprit, stress. As a consequence, bacteria and undigested food makes its way into the bloodstream, leading to impaired digestion and absorption of nutrients, stomach upset, discomfort, inflammation and disease.
Fight and Flight, Rest and Digest
Now, let’s dive a little deeper into that “gut feeling” and GBA. Think about that gut instinct you get when you’re in a nerve-racking situation — or that feeling you get when you on are a date with someone who’s not right for you. Emotions are linked to intestinal functions and can help you sense environmental threats.
When under stress, your fight or flight (sympathetic nervous system) kicks in. Chemicals are released into the blood to prepare our bodies to run from or fight a physical danger. The blood flow to the stomach and gut are decreased and enzymes and digestive acids are no longer secreted. This is a good thing when faced with danger, because it gets blood to our major muscles in order to help get us to safety.
These days, though, most of us experience environmental stress more often than stress triggered by real physical danger. Instead of running, we are sitting at our desk scarfing down a comfort food like a bagel or muffin. Our stomachs, which aren’t getting the blood they need, take on the brunt of the stress. As a result, digestion and absorption of nutrients is impaired, leading to stomach upset, discomfort, inflammation and damage.
The parasympathetic nervous system is called the rest and digest system. It controls just that: relaxation and digestion. It conserves energy, slows heart rate, increases digestion and relaxes the stomach muscles so it can do its job properly. This gets activated when we are at rest or completely relaxed. When the parasympathetic system is activated, optimal digestion occurs.
8 Ways to Activate Aid Digestion
When is the last time you actually “relaxed” while eating. Can you remember the last time you sat down to just eat? That means no computer, no television, no email, no cell phone, no magazine and no newspaper. If you can remember that meal, you might also remember that it was the last time you experienced zero digestion issues.
Activating the parasympathetic system at meal time is easy once you implement some simple habits into your routine. Here are some ways you can optimize digestion today:
- Eat in a calm, relaxed setting. Activate the parasympathetic nervous system and facilitate digestion by relaxing while you eat. Step away from your desk, light a candle or try taking three deep breaths before your first bite. This simple step helps your gut prepare for digestion, including increased blood flow and enzymes.
- Eat in an unhurried manner. Stop rushing to finish your meal and engage all of your senses (look, smell, texture, taste) to truly taste your food. Eating slowly stimulates digestive enzymes in the mouth and stomach and improves the awareness of satiety. Approach every meal as if it the first time you’ve ever tasted that food before.
- Chew your food completely. Put your fork down between bites and take time to chew. This generates saliva that initiates starch digestion in the mouth and signals the stomach to prepare for the entry of food. Scarfing down food can cause your stomach to ache and can increase issues including bad bacteria, fermentation, and putrefaction.
- Adopt healthy coping mechanisms
Many of us use food as a coping mechanism to relieve stress or cope with unpleasant emotions such as sadness, loneliness, or boredom. But after eating, we feel even worse; not only does the original emotional issue still remain, but we also feel guilty for overeating. Check in and refer to the acronym HALT (hungry, angry, lonely, tired) when you are eating for emotional reasons. This increases your ability to respond to stress and decreases tendency to use food for comfort when stressed. Start a food and mood journal and get to know the real reason why you have to have that late night snack.
- Eat small, frequent meals. Eat before the stomach is 20% empty and stop before it is 80% full. This will ease the digestive process and keep you feeling energized throughout the day. To do this, make meals like breakfast, lunch and dinner a little smaller and add snacks in between meals. Some great snacks to squeeze between breakfast and lunch or between lunch and dinner include:
- Unsweetened yogurt with oats and berries
- Whole grain crackers with peanut butter and fresh fruit
- Hard boiled egg with celery and hummus
A combination of protein, fat and carbohydrates will help provide your body with the fuel it needs. The fiber from the fresh fruits and vegetables will help keep things moving and feed those healthy bacteria in your digestive tract. As a bonus, eating whole ingredients will help decrease inflammation, helping you to feel less bloated and heavy.
- Reduce irritants. Limit irritating foods and drinks including spicy food, coffee, alcohol, and caffeine. Keep a food journal and gain some insight into what is making your stomach upset and contact your physician or dietitian to gain more insight into possible food allergies.
- Start your meal with a “bath”. Drink warm water, decaf tea or broth before a meal. This helps your stomach relax and prepare for your upcoming meal. As a bonus, it can help increase satiety. Think of it as a warm bath for your stomach.
- Prebiotics and probiotics. Healthy microbiota can help prevent and treat anxiety and depression. Increase prebiotics (banana, garlic, onions, asparagus, Jerusalem artichoke, acacia gum, chicory root) and probiotics (fermented foods such as yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut and pickles) in your diet, and limit or avoid the foods that favor the bad bacteria like sugar, alcohol and processed fats.
Get to know — and Love — Your Gut
Keeping track of what you ate is the best way to determine which foods work best for you and don’t cause your guy any distress. Give it a try by logging meals in a meal planner app or by journaling. Log the meal’s ingredients, the time of your meals, your hunger level before the meal, your fullness level after the meal, your mood, and any symptoms for at least one week. This journal could uncover allergies, food intolerances, or digestive issues like bloating, gas, stomach pain, diarrhea, or constipation. Always talk to your doctor before trying to diagnose or remedy things on your own.
After journaling for a week, you’ll feel more in tune with your body and make decisions about what’s working and what’s not. It might be as simple as reducing the amount of inflammatory foods you eat (fried foods, sugar, refined grains and oils, artificial additives, alcohol) and increasing the amount of anti-inflammatory foods in your diet (fresh produce such as berries and leafy greens, nuts, fatty fish such as salmon, whole grains, and spices like turmeric, ginger and cinnamon). The easiest way to do this is by thinking about adding more freshness and color to your plate.
Remember the Connection
All that said, maybe food isn’t your problem. The brain and gut are connected. If you are eating right, have no known allergies or intolerances, and are relatively active, stress could be causing your digestive unrest. Do your best to reduce your overall stress level by identifying the source and then making time for relaxation, deep breathing or meditation, people you love and activities you enjoy.
About the Author
Lisa Booth, nutritionist at 8fit, has an integrative approach to wellness and brings a holistic background in dietetics, health education, fitness, and coaching. She has experience working with weight management and disordered eating in the corporate and private practice settings.
Lisa is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and has a Master of Science in Holistic Nutrition. She holds a certificate of training in intuitive eating, certificate of coaching and psychotherapy, and is a primary group exercise instructor.