If you want a healthy body, you must be able to process the food you eat to provide the critical energy and nutrients your body needs to power and repair.
While most people assume that the digestive process begins in the mouth, it actually starts in the brain and is managed by the nervous system. When we are in need of food, we developed feelings of hunger which are cues from the brain to tell you to go find food. And then when we see (or even think) about this food, the brain tells the rest of the body that it’s time to eat. In fact, each stage of digestion alerts the next that food and nutrients are on their way.
This entire process is managed by the autonomic nervous system and its two branches—the sympathetic (fight or flight) system, and the parasympathetic (rest and digest) system. And the gastrointestinal tract responds to signals from both branches of ANS.
With intense activity or stress, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) shuts down both digestion and appetite. If you think about when you are feeling nervous or anxious, you may notice that your mouth goes dry and you feel ‘butterflies’ in your stomach. That’s the SNS at work.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) promotes the calm and consistent action of digestion. In situations of extreme fear or trauma, however, the SNS response can become exhausted, causing the PNS to suddenly activate. Since intestinal motility is one of its primary, digestive functions, a spike in parasympathetic activity can cause the loss of bowel or bladder control.
It’s pretty clear that the nervous system plays a very important role in the digestive process. And this has an impact on what people can (or can’t) eat before an event or physical activity. There is also a wide range of variability in what people prefer to eat following a hard, physical effort. But when to eat may be even more important consideration than what to eat.
If you’ve worked really hard or been under stress, it’s best to wait at least 30 minutes before consuming solid food. In order to obtain the maximum amount of nutrients and most restorative effects from it. If your recovery window is less than 30 minutes, it’s better to opt for a liquid form of nutrition since the digestive system will still be working under sympathetic control. By postponing your intake of any food until at least 30 minutes after
physical activity or stress, your body will benefit more fully from food when your digestive system has settled back into its parasympathetic mode.
Whether your body is in an acute, sympathetic mode from being physically challenged or from an increased level of general life stress, make a conscious effort to activate your parasympathetic system when you eat.
Try to avoid eating while you’re standing or moving, shopping on the internet, or driving your car. Your thoughts, feelings, and environment all affect nutrient processing. Becoming aware of how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking while you’re eating is an important, first step in maximizing your body’s ability to fully benefit from food.
Deciding what to eat and when to eat it can make a difference in how well the body digests and utilizes food. Once those decisions have been made, the journey food makes from the mouth through the remainder of the digestive system isn’t always smooth.
The small intestine is where most of what we eat is converted into its usable forms—glucose (from carbohydrates), amino acids (from proteins), and fatty acids (from fats). It’s also where the body decides if it can recognize and use certain food particles or if it should classify them as a bacteria, virus, or toxin.
Health and performance issues can occur when inadequately digested food proteins are mistakenly identified as enemy invaders. This mistake might be experienced as a form of digestive distress, or in an entirely different and unexpected way, like eczema, tendonitis, or a migraine. In fact, the body’s confused attempt to defend itself can lead to inflammation all over the body. The most common offending foods are those that are the most difficult to digest—beans and grains.
The large intestine, which carries waste from the body, is where the majority of beneficial flora known as probiotics live. Inadequate intestinal flora can lead to poor large intestine function. If your eliminations are small, dense, difficult to pass, and foul-smelling, this is a sign of excessive transit time; your large intestine is taking too long to pass waste. If you suffer from frequent bouts of diarrhea, this means your digestive system is rejecting food too quickly; your system is flushing out perceived irritants along with all the other contents of your small and large intestines.
Perhaps with the high levels of chronic stress, it is no wonder that the incidence of Irritable Bowel Syndrome or IBS is on the rise, especially among women. And recent
research has linked it’s onset to insufficient and/or imbalanced microbiome intestinal flora. More specifically, it appears that decreased levels of the beneficial bacteria strains Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria and increased levels of the harmful E. coli and Clostridia have been found in the fecal samples of an overwhelming majority of IBS patients.
There are several factors that may lead to microbiome disruption and the onset of IBS. These include the use of antibiotics, a current or previous infection, dietary choices, and stress—both mental and physical.
Ironically, further investigation has revealed that most IBS patients exhibit an exaggerated stress response, and have a difficult time shutting that response down, even after the offending stressor has been removed. They also demonstrate what’s known as visceral hypersensitivity; they are overly aware of the physical sensations they are experiencing at any given moment. This, of course, means that they pay even more attention to their IBS-related symptoms, increasing and perpetuating their general level of anxiety–and the perceived severity of their symptoms.
The upshot is to find ways to balance your stressful life and be present when and how you eat.
Sleep, mediation, active relaxation, long walks, playing, beach walks are all critical. But the just as important is to find a peaceful quiet place to eat, be present, chew your food and then really be present to the flavors. Your grandmother knew what she was talking about!