Chances are, you’ve heard of ‘fight or flight’ – maybe you’ve experienced it yourself.
Fight or flight mode happens when your body perceives danger. It developed during primitive times, as a survival instinct, when humans had to protect themselves from life-threatening situations, like being chased by a mountain lion. Blood flows away from our core (digestion) and into our extremities, readying the body for battle and defence. Our body tenses up.
The key thing about the fight or flight response is that the brain doesn’t know the difference between everyday stresses and life-threatening situations. Chances are, our stress response is triggering not because we are being chased by a mountain lion but because we have an impending deadline or a difficult client, for example.
So what do mountain lions, deadlines and stress have to do with eating?
Our digestive function is the first system to suffer when we experience stress and anxiety. When your brain is wired on stress, our digestive system is weak and inefficient. Developmentally speaking, our bodies have been programmed to understand that proper digestion isn’t necessary for surviving dangerous situations (or stress at work). Our nutrient absorption and digestive function is low on the list of important priorities when we’re in a life or death situation.
So the lesser-known response of the body, and the ideal state for digestion, is known as “rest and digest.”
This is the response that is triggered when the body and mind calm down, let go, and stop perceiving danger. When we bring ourselves into this state, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is activated. Blood flow remains even and controlled throughout the body and all systems continue to work optimally. Proper nutrient absorption and digestion happen when the PNS is activated, making “rest and digest” something to strive for as we sit down to eat our meals.
Here are some ways to nourish the nervous system before consuming your food:
There is power in leading with a grateful heart - whether it’s a word of gratitude, formal prayer or recognition for the all those who had a hand in getting your food to your plate. Take a thankful pause before diving in. A gratitude practice improves the body’s digestive function because it brings the body and mind into a more calm and restful state, allowing the PNS to activate.
The added connection to our food improves our mindfulness, too.
Be mindful of the physical space you choose to eat in.
The space chosen should be different than your workspace. Allow yourself time to rest and step away for nourishment.
How we eat matters. Being mindful of the space within our mind and body also matters.
Simple, slow, deep breaths help encourage the activation of the PNS.
You can ask yourself:
Slowing down allows the digestive system to relax into a state of optimal function. With the PNS activated, we can consciously consume our meals.
The most amount of digestive enzymes we have are in our saliva in the mouth. This means that chewing is the most important part of nutrient absorption and overall digestive function!
As we slow down, and chew more, we increase our awareness of the food we are eating. In turn, we begin to feel more connected in body and mind.
So, the keys to cultivating a mindful eating practice and nourishing the PNS, especially in the workplace where we’re often busy and stressed, are to:
Read along next time for insight on guilt-free eating and maintaining lasting energy. Until then, give your parasympathetic nervous system some love with the tips above!