Digestion and the Mind Body Connection

Mindful eating focuses on the increasingly important roles of mind and spirit and their contribution to our eating habits and choices. In regards to our digestion, it is becoming more essential to consider not just WHAT we are eating but HOW we are eating, and it’s impact on our digestive function. By looking at diet and digestion from this new perspective, we can begin to establish a brand new relationship with our mealtimes and the food we eat.

Digestion is the process of breaking down, absorbing and assimilating food and the nutrients it contains. What happens when your digestive function isn’t working as optimally as we need it to? You can experience a multitude of symptoms that can include cramping, bloating, abdominal fullness, reflux, indigestion, constipation or diarrhoea; or a combination of these. So how much of this has to do with what you are eating and how much has to do with how you are eating it? Digestion can be affected by many different factors including poor diet choices, medications and food intolerances to name a few; but two of the biggest and often overlooked contributors to digestive dysfunction are stress and speed.

Have you ever experienced butterflies in your tummy, dry mouth when you’re nervous or feeling “sick to your stomach?” It’s these reactions that are being influenced by the nervous system, and if your digestion is consistently in stress mode, it can mean suboptimal metabolism and assimilation of essential nutrients you need to sleep, think, repair and grow. Research shows that certain stressful life events can be associated with the onset or worsening of certain digestive conditions such as IBS, reflux disease and stomach ulcers. The human body has two branches of the autonomic nervous system that are designed to help you survive – the sympathetic nervous system that helps us cope in the face of stressful events and situations (often labeled fight or flight mode); and the parasympathetic nervous system that brings you back to homeostasis, or to “rest and digest”. In this day and age when we are constantly confronted with situations that cause our nervous systems to react in a stress response; (think – jobs with long hours, traffic, back to back commitments, mobile phones, computers, deadlines, study, etc) your body is switched onto “flight or fight” in order to deal with the stress at hand. Digestion isn’t paramount for survival, so as the sympathetic nervous system switches on, digestion is switched off or inhibited. What happens if your body is continually stuck in “fight or flight” mode – does your digestion ever get a real chance to do it’s job properly?


Let’s look at what happens when you are eating while the sympathetic nervous system is switched on, here’s an example: You’ve just come out of a meeting that ran overtime, have to jump in your car to make it across town for another important engagement that you can’t be late for. Meanwhile, you didn’t eat breakfast and you are starving so you bust out your lunch onto the passenger seat and start shoving it into your mouth as quickly as you can, hoping you don’t spill any on your shirt and that you will make your next meeting in time. You finally arrive with minutes to spare, only to vaguely notice you feel really full like a you just ate cement for lunch, it’s uncomfortable and hard. You feel bloated and tired. Your concentration during the meeting is difficult and by the time you finish you feel lethargic and irritable. So, what has happened here? Your digestive system hasn’t been given the appropriate signals it needs to do its job properly because it’s on standby. The blood vessels to your digestive tract literally constrict while the sympathetic nervous system is switched on meaning no blood flow; muscular contractions also slow down and digestive secretions are inhibited or stopped completely. In contrast, if you are eating under the influence of your parasympathetic nervous system, your digestive function is switched on – saliva is being produced, there is increased blood flow and motility of  your digestive system’s muscles and sphincters; and your digestive organs are happily producing and secreting enzymes to help breakdown, assimilate and absorb all the nutrients you need from our meal.

Let’s explore this further. Digestion starts with your eyes. You see your meal and it looks good (well, hopefully it does). This triggers the hypothalamus to tell the parasympathetic nervous system to begin the digestive process! Your mouth starts producing saliva which is filled with lots of awesome enzymes to start breaking down of your food. You chew and swallow and then your food hits your stomach, which has begun to produce stomach acid in order to continue the process of breaking down our food. Our stomach kneads this food for a while turning it into a kind of slush known as chyme, then it moves it on through to your small intestine where the absorption of all those beautiful and essential nutrients takes place. Your liver is happily producing bile and our gallbladder is splurting it out to continue with the breakdown of our food and our pancreas is on board with a selection of amazing enzymes to further ensure we are getting everything our bodies need from the food we are eating. Finally our large intestine gets it’s turn and and prepares the leftover remnants of our meals to be safely and healthily excreted from our body.

So let’s link this back to our example: your rushing, so you’re stressed. You’re concentrating on driving and not at all on your meal. You are shoving food in your mouth without thinking about it and hardly chewing, just swallowing your food down in quick, big chunks. This means that there has been no initiation of the digestive

process – your stomach is shut down from stress, with no blood flow or oxygen, and there have been no signals for it to produce stomach acid. Chewing hasn’t really happened as you gulp down your meal and so large lumps of un-chewed food are sitting there with no acid to help break it down and move it through to the next stage. This is where the abdominal fullness sets in – that horrible feeling where your food is sitting like stone in your gut with no where to go. You feel tired, heavy and bloated and it can only get worse from here. There is no movement from the smooth muscles of your digestive tract, and little to no activity from the liver, gallbladder or pancreas to continue the job because they haven’t been given the message about the meal you just consumed. Whether the food you ate was clean and full of nutrients, or whether it was fast food or take-away are not the only factors to take into consideration when it comes to how well you digest your meals. You could be eating the cleanest, healthiest food in the world but if your digestive system is constantly shut down from stress, anxiety and/or rushing then there is no way your body will ever have the chance to absorb and assimilate the bounty of nutrients you are giving it. But do not give up hope! By becoming aware of how you are eating, you can begin to change how your body processes and digests your meals and improve your digestive health and function for the better.

Here are 4 top ways that you can influence your digestive function just by changing HOW you eat. It takes 21 days to create a new habit; give yourself the time to make these small but sustainable lifestyle changes and you

  1. Give yourself time to eat  and eat without distraction:

The first and most important thing you need to do is slow down! Take stock of when your meals are going to be, prepare and allocate some time, even if it is only 5 minutes to begin with and build up from there. If you are always rushing out the door in the morning then try preparing your breakfast the night before. Get up 5 minutes earlier (it really won’t kill you!) and sit at your table or breakfast bar and enjoy the first meal of your day in peace and quiet. If you know what your schedule is going to be like for the day but you’re not sure what time you will get a break; then make sure your lunch is on hand or you have chosen what you’re going to eat for that meal so you can easily fit in the time to enjoy your lunch. Step away from your work desk or at the very minimum, turn your computer screen off so you can eat undistracted. Best choice would be to eat sitting at a table with no distractions, or even better, outside in the fresh air with some grass beneath your feet. If you have to eat on the run or you are in your car, stop or pull over for 5 minutes and eat before continuing to drive. If dinner is usually eaten in front of the TV or while you’re on your mobile phone then turn them off or put it down and take the time to sit at the table with no distractions or in the company of your loved ones to enjoy your meal. Make the choice to put aside a dedicated amount of time for each meal and to eat undistracted and see how your digestive system thanks you.

  1. Breathe:

By taking some deep, replenishing breaths, we can improve our body’s capacity to digest our food to its fullest potential. Slow, full breathing tells our nervous system to calm down – switching our parasympathetic nervous system on to “rest and digest”. It improves oxygen flow to all our organs to ensure they are functioning properly and we are receiving all the enzymes, acid and muscles contractions we need to breakdown and assimilate the nutrients from our food. Try taking a minimum of 5 deep belly breaths, in your nose and out your mouth, before you begin eating each meal and see the difference!

  1. Chew:

Chewing is the first of many essential steps in our digestive process and not chewing properly can spell trouble down the track, literally! Chewing allows us to not only taste and enjoy our food, but also to break it down to a manageable consistency for our stomach to continue processing. The stomach is designed to mix and store our  chewed food; and if our food is hitting the stomach in large, un-

chewed chunks it means extra strain on the stomach to try and break the food apart, potentially leading to abdominal fullness and stomach discomfort. If we are eating in a stressed or rushed state this only makes things worse as gastric activity is inhibited when the body’s stress response is switched on. So, chew, chew, chew! Enjoy the taste and texture of your food; put your knife and fork down between bites and savour your meal.

4. Be mindful  and listen to your body:

Have you ever experienced that feeling where you your eating away and all of a sudden you feel so full you can’t move? Ever felt that feeling but continued to eat because it tastes so good?! It takes 20 minutes for the brain to register that the stomach is full and if we eat in a rushed state there is a high chance of us eating more food than we can literally fit in our stomach. This is the step where we begin to listen to the signals our body is giving us about how full we are. It is suggested that we aim to feel about 80% full before stopping. You want to experience a comfortable feeling of satiety that leaves you feeling satisfied, energetic and alert.

Body awareness is a vital part of your health – being able to listen to and interpret your body’s messages will allow you to figure out what is working for you and what isn’t. Some of the things you can reflect on through being self aware include:

  • How am I feeling before I sit down to eat?
  • What’s my hunger level?
  • Am I hungry for food? Why am I choosing to eat at this moment?
  • Is this food agreeing with me?
  • Have I eaten enough? How full do I feel?
  • How do I feel now that I’ve finished eating – is my energy increased? Do I feel tired? Do I have any bloating, discomfort or pain?

By listening to your body before, during and after you eat, you will discover a world of new information about yourself and your digestive function, how it’s working and why it is working the way it is. Mindful eating allows you, as an individual, to discover what works for you when it comes to food and eating. This invaluable insight can allow you to transform not only your relationship with food but the way you feel physically when you eat – to promote optimal digestion, health and wellbeing for yourself.

This article was taken from the Tummy Tamer e-book. The Naturopaths, Nutritionists and Doctors at Vibe Natural Health have teamed up with healthy chef and food blogger Nicole Maree to create a comprehensive guide to the natural way to help digestive problems, The Tummy Tamer. The book is a “how to guide” for common digestive complaints such as IBS, bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhoea, gut parasites, candida, leaky gut, acne, stress and food intolerances. It’s a 260 page guide to sooth your tummy troubles naturally. To learn more, click on the image below.








David, M 1991, Nourishing Wisdom: A Mind Body Approach to Nutrition and Wellbeing, Random House, New York.

David, M 2005, The Slow Down Diet, Eating for Pleasure, Energy and Weight Loss, Healing Arts Press, Vermont.

Mayer, E 2000, The Neurobiology of Stress and Gastrointestinal Disease, GUT BMJ.

Tortora, G & Grabowski, S 2000, Principles of Anatomy and Physiology, John Wiley and Sons, New York.




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