Digestion Starts in the Brain

You probably read that title and are thinking, ‘How does digestion start in the brain? What the hell is she talking about.’ As weird as it may sound, all the goodness that goes on in your gut begins in your brain and I’ll explain all the awesome details now. This is really cool stuff, so settle in.

Let’s begin with a common scenario. Say you have a demanding job and work 45+ hours a week. Let’s imagine a particular busy day, full of meetings and you only have 20 minutes to grab lunch. You speed to the taco shop a few blocks away, get 2 loaded tacos, and race back to the office. That took 10 minutes. You park, phone in one hand scrolling emails, taco in the other. Completely distracted and anxious about time, you inhale those tacos because your next meeting starts in exactly 7 minutes!

Going through the motions

In this scenario, you are not savoring your food. You’re simply going through the motions of eating because you’re anxious of the time and worried about the latest email from your boss. In fact, you might wonder where that last taco went when you see the bag is empty. Huh? I ate both of those already? You sure did. And if you’d ordered more you would have eaten those too because you barely were aware you were eating.

If this scenario is a common one for you, whether you are eating in your car, at your desk or on a skateboard, you aren’t alone. I have done it myself more times than I care to admit. But here’s what I want you to take away from this post: you can not digest food properly when you eat in this anxious, distracted state. You can’t force food down your gob and expect decent results and I’ll tell you exactly why.

“Poor planning on your part does not necessitate an emergency on mine.”

– Your digestive system

We get all our nutrients from the food we eat. The pleasurable and communal act of eating and the subsequent, amazing triage of nutrients the digestive tract synchronizes, is nothing short of a miracle. So doesn’t it make sense that we can’t force that process because we don’t have enough time? You know the saying, ‘poor planning on your part does not necessitate an emergency on mine?’ Same for digestion. Just because you have a meeting in 7 minutes and didn’t plan ahead does not mean your body needs to follow suit. In fact, it will punish you (sometimes mercilessly) with gas, bloating, inflammation, lethargy, heartburn, constipation (or diarrhea), and the list goes on. It will punish you because it doesn’t play that game.

The Long Game

Digestion plays the long game and it starts in the brain. When you’re cooking a meal at home or sitting in a restaurant, you’re anticipating the meal, smelling all the good smells that help stimulate the entire digestion process. You enter what’s called a parasympathetic state. Your body responds by releasing saliva and signally the digestive organs that it’s time to get ready. When you eat in a stressed or distracted state, your parasympathetic system can’t ramp up and do its job. The result is under-digested food causing chaos at every turn.

Here’s what proper digestion looks like (in a nutshell):

  1. You eat in a calm, mindful state, anticipating the meal ahead. You eat more slowly as a result and chew your food completely. This allows a cascade of north-to-south processes to work for you, not against you.
  2. In the mouth, your teeth break down the food and mix with saliva, which begins breaking down your food even more.
  3. In the stomach, an acidic soup-like mixture is formed from the break down of protein, fat, carbohydrates, and stomach juices into what is called chyme.
  4. In the small intestines, a chemical symphony of epic proportions begins and this is where most nutrient absorption happens.
  5. The chyme leftovers move on down to the large intestines, where water and electrolyte minerals are absorbed and our microbiome converts the rest into waste.
Sympathetic vs. Parasympathetic

Now let’s think about the situation I lined out before. When we are experiencing stress, our brain signals the sympathetic nervous system, which is what we do not want during digestion. This is our fight-or-flight response and it causes the body to conserve function that isn’t needed. When your body thinks it’s under attack, digestion is the last thing on its agenda. So by eating while stressed and triggering the sympathetic system, the emptying of the stomach is delayed and this can lead to indigestion, heartburn and nausea. Not to mention as your stomach slows down, the same stress affects the large intestine and now you might have a 4-alarm bowel emergency (i.e. diarrhea).

A Better Scenario

I don’t believe most of us would ever think a five minute lunch in their car could have digestive consequences. But it definitely does. A better scenario for our busy bee would be something like this:

Instead of racing to the taco shop, you grab your bag which you packed that morning and walk out into the sunshine. You take a seat on a nearby bench or sit in a grassy spot and take a few deep breaths to shake off the morning. You pull out a spinach chicken salad (homemade of course), and admire the luscious chunks of roasted chicken, the pop of green from the spinach and the tantalizing smell of fresh dill. Your mouth can’t help but water. You take a single bite and savor it. Dang this is good, you think to yourself. The sun on your back and there’s a nice breeze. You take another bite, chewing slowly, then another.

You aren’t distracted because your phone is in your bag and your sensory focus is on your lunch. By taking this time, you’re not only giving yourself a much needed break during the day, you’re also giving your digestive system the tools it needs to take that salad and nourish you.

For your next meal, please carve out some time for yourself. Make a rule to not eat in the car or on the run. Put the phone away and limit distractions, like TV. Engage with the human sitting across from you. Take several deep breaths before diving in, even if it’s a small meal. Smell the goodness, admire the colors and how the food looks on the plate or in the bowl. Then, and only then, enjoy your food the way it was intended.

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