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Set the Stage for Mealtime

Growing up, we always said a prayer of thanks before each meal. Little did I know that this habit helps the nervous system be in a better state for digestion. Our nervous system has 2 primary aspects that are crucial to understand:

  • The Parasympathetic State, also known as “rest and digest” and

  • The Sympathetic State, also known as “fight or flight”

When in a sympathetic state, the body is in a stress response, and blood is sent to the extremities so we can fight or flee. Blood is diverted away from the digestive system because digesting food is not a priority when we are fighting for our lives. Even with moderate or chronic stress, like our to-do lists for the day or habitual self-criticism, our digestive system is negatively affected.

In order for proper digestion to occur, the body must be in a parasympathetic state. When in a parasympathetic state, the stomach produces appropriate stomach acid to digest proteins, the pancreas produces digestive enzymes to break down foods into small molecules, and the intestines better absorb nutrients.

Bringing about a parasympathetic state can be done in multiple ways and often varies depending on personal preference. Some people find relaxation through meditation or prayer, while others get relaxed by going on a walk or socializing with others. Whatever brings you joy and relaxation, make time for yourself to do it. There are also a few tricks to turn your parasympathetic nervous system on specifically for eating.

Try these out before your next meal:

  1. Engage your brain -- Before you even sit down to eat, start to think about your food, smell it being prepared, and imagine what it will taste like. This is called the cephalic phase of digestion, and it is small but mighty! The cephalic phase alone accounts for roughly 20% of stomach secretions!

  2. Set the stage -- Ideally, each meal takes place seated, in a peaceful environment, with minimal distractions, and a relaxed mind. This combination can be hard to come by, so see what small changes you can make to ease toward this ideal. Maybe instead of eating over the kitchen counter, you sit down on the couch. Maybe instead of eating breakfast on the drive to work, you eat while the car is parked in the driveway or parking lot. Small changes make a big difference when it comes to digestion.

  3. Be thankful -- Whether with your mealtime prayer, gratitude toward the farmers who grew the food, gratitude toward the person that prepared the food, or a spontaneous burst of thanks to a higher power, be grateful. Our brains are wired to pause for a moment and give thanks before meals.

  4. Chew your food -- This was harped into us as children and reminded to us as adults. Here is yet another reminder but with a motivational twist. Chewing stimulates a parasympathetic state. Can you imagine being being chased by a tiger and chewing?! Chewing signals to your brain that it is safe to relax. Also, because chewing breaks up our food into smaller pieces, this allows more surface area for digestive juices to absorb nutrients. These digestive juices start in our mouth, so chew more for more nutrients!

  5. Eat happy -- As much as you can, eat with people you love. Eat in a good mood. Have light conversations while you eat. And let at least this part of your day be stress-free.

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