In the era of netflix and chill, mindful eating has really taken a backseat. We hear about it in mental and spiritual wellness cohorts, but are we really aware of the science behind it? Keeping your gadgets aside and giving all your attention to your meals might not seem like a big deal. But, by the end of this article, you will realise the extent to which mindful eating impacts your body and how it can also help you heal from illnesses.
Mindful eating entails eating in a state of conscious and non-judgemental awareness. It involves shifting one’s attention to the food and mind-body connection. This allows one to completely immerse themselves in the intricate and intimate process of eating. This activates healing properties against problematic eating habits and digestive discomfort. Mindful eating goes beyond your plate and towards your mind.
The stress-digestion-mindfulness triad
At the core of mindful eating, lies the stress-digestion-mindfulness triad: It is bringing together an understanding of our digestive functions, nervous system, stress and mindfulness. Our digestive system is controlled by our central nervous system (CNS) and the enteric nervous system (ENS).The connection between ENS and CNS is a two-way street, they work in harmony to look after digestion.
Both these systems regulate motility or the contraction and relaxation of muscles that help propel food through your gastrointestinal (GI) tract, stomach acid production, secretion of enzymes and hormones that are crucial to hunger, satiety and digestion, absorption of nutrients, and regulation of blood flow to the digestive system. You can see how important the interplay of these systems is for your body to process food!
In fact, the ENS is often called the body’s second brain; your gut is populated with 200-600 million neurons that belong to the ENS. It helps your brain digest food and sends off a red signal when something goes haywire. The ENS is a part of the autonomic nervous system, the other parts being the sympathetic and parasympathetic, which are equally important to digestion.
Parasympathetic nervous system dominance
When you experience any kind of stress, your body recoils with reactions that disturb homeostasis. Think of your body as a pendulum constantly oscillating between the rest-digest or parasympathetic state versus the fight-or-flight or sympathetic state. Not that all stress is unhealthy, but your challenge is to keep yourself in an ideal parasympathetic state. This is where mindfulness comes in as a stress-reduction intervention due to its ability to promote the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) dominance.
When you perform mind-body practices like mindful eating, it promotes your parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn activates your autonomic nervous system vital for optimal digestive function. This keeps your body in a rest and digest state, instead of the fight-or-flight mode. It helps your body for maximum digestion and nutrient absorption.
Mindful eating to support your gut
How it helps:
- Helps break down food more efficiently
- Fosters awareness of chewing
- Promotes identification and response to internal signals
- Promotes salivary enzymes involved in parasympathetic activity
Steps to follow:
- Chew each mouthful 30 times
- Place fork down between bites
- Take deep breaths between bites
Eat when hungry
How it helps:
- It is easier to eat more mindfully when you are hungry as your body is actually asking for food. Your taste buds are primed to make food more pleasurable and your senses also become heightened.
- The Migrating motor complex is often referred to as the "housekeeper" of the digestive system. It facilitates the movement or “sweeping” of any residual undigested material through the digestive system. It also prevents the overgrowth of bacteria in our digestive system. Interestingly, the MMC is only stimulated and functions when we are not eating!
Steps to follow:
- Use a hunger scale before eating
- Answer self-inquiry questions in mindful-eating journal before meals to increase awareness
Engage your senses
How it helps: Engaging your senses stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system, which supports the body's rest-and-digest state.
Steps to follow:
- Identify emotions - fear or guilt around eating
- Suck on fresh lemon half to appreciate its sourness
- Hold dark chocolate in mouth to appreciate its bitterness
How it helps: The external environment influences your nervous system and helps to shift it to a parasympathetic state.
Steps to follow:
- Use attractive plates, glasses, utensils
- Clear table of items unrelated to meals
- Remove electronic devices from room
- Light a candle
How does stress disrupt your gut?
Mindful eating affects chronic stress which in turn affects GI function. It is all a complex web of processes: A stressful state can reshape the make-up of your gut bacteria through stress hormones, inflammation, and autonomic alterations. Alternatively, your gut bacteria can release toxins, metabolites and hormones that can affect your behaviour, mood and lead to dysregulated eating.
Fight-or-flight mode can lead to inflammation, esophagus spasms, increase indigestion, lead to nausea and even contribute to diarrhea and constipation. It can also exacerbate symptoms in people suffering from gut issues like irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis.
There is a lot of research on mindfulness-based stress reduction programs in healing several chronic health issues. A study also showed other mindfulness practices such as diaphragmatic breathing and meditation proving helpful for patients with Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
In today’s day and age, with endless stimulation and temptations around us, it has become a challenge to have a conscious relationship with food. But you can definitely overcome anything you put your mind to. While you take other steps to keep your gut happy, eating mindfully will transform your relationship with food and truly appreciate the act of eating. Never underestimate the power of mind over matter!
- Enteric Nervous system: http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Enteric_nervous_system
- Mindful Eating: A Review Of How The Stress-Digestion-Mindfulness Triad May Modulate And Improve Gastrointestinal And Digestive Function: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7219460/
- Mindful Eating: Nurturing Digestive Wellness Through Mind-Body Connection: https://tristategastro.net/mindful-eating-nurturing-digestive-wellness-through-mind-body-connection
- Mindful Eating - Help guide: https://www.helpguide.org/articles/diets/mindful-eating.htm
- The Gut and the Brain: https://hms.harvard.edu/news-events/publications-archive/brain/gut-brain#:~:text
- How Stress Affects Digestion: https://www.everydayhealth.com/wellness/united-states-of-stress/how-stress-affects-digestion/
- Mindfulness-based stress reduction for the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome symptoms: a randomized wait-list controlled trial: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22618308/