The Importance of HOW You Eat

Would you be surprised to know you can eat the healthiest diet possible and still not be healthy?  I know it sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true.  There are so many influences on health, and diet is just one factor.

What if I told you HOW you eat can be as important as what you eat?  Maybe you are putting kale in your smoothie, eating lots of vegetables every day, avoiding caffeine, excessive alcohol and sugar intake, hydrating adequately, getting regular exercise and still struggling with issues like weight, fatigue, poor sleep, and aches and pains.  You’re thinking, ‘what gives, I’m doing everything on the list and I still can’t get out of this hole?’  Well, I have something that may be undermining all your efforts.

How do You Eat?

I said last week I was going to talk about how stress affects digestion.  Stress affects way more than digestion.  It’s estimated that 75 to 90 percent of doctor visits are for illness and conditions tied to stress.  Stress is a large contributor to chronic disease.  Stress can be any type of physical, mental or emotional factor that causes tension in the body.  Physical stress includes illness, surgery and even exercise if it further taxes the body.  Mental and emotional stress comes from how we perceive or internalize our external environment.  The label we put on events and circumstances can cause us psychological distress which initiates the same chemical reactions in the body as physical stressors, activating the sympathetic nervous system, putting us in fight or flight mode.

Since we are focusing on digestion, let’s stay in this lane for now.  I know that I never realized the importance of proper digestion to overall health when I was living in high-stress mode all the time.  When I was a student (which was most of my adult life), I would eat my meals while driving from work to school, even while working or studying.  I found creative ways to “squeeze” in a meal, often quickly and/or while doing something else.  Very rarely would I just sit down and eat a meal.

We talked last week about IBS, stress and the autonomic nervous system.  You remember, the fight or flight response of the sympathetic nervous system vs. the rest and digest of the parasympathetic nervous system?  We also talked about the enteric nervous system of the digestive system being a subcomponent of the parasympathetic nervous system.  Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system.  And since only one or the other of the nervous systems can be active at any given time, this gives us a choice: stress or digest.

When we are stressed, digestion is impaired.  The sympathetic nervous system is activated and energy is dedicated to responding to the stressor.  In order for the parasympathetic nervous system to be activated, and thus digestion of food and nutrients to occur, we must be in the right frame of mind and our body must be calm.  How you eat, and digest, is directly related to what you are doing and how you are feeling when you eat.

When you are stressed your digestive system is not doing what it should be to digest your meal: digestive enzymes aren’t released and your stomach is less acidic due to low hydrochloric acid production (acid is necessary to the breakdown of food).  Not having these tools available during digestion stresses the gut.  This interferes with the absorption of nutrients as well.  If the stomach and gut don’t have the tools necessary to break down food into smaller molecules and nutrients, they cannot be absorbed.  Thus, no matter how clean and healthy your food, if it’s not being absorbed it’s not providing you the benefits you desire.  The vitamin K in your kale is passing right through the digestive tract.

Additional Problems

When we are living in a constant state of heightened stress, digestion isn’t the only thing impaired.  Blood sugar issues are tied to more and more chronic illnesses in modern society.  The fight or flight response of the sympathetic nervous system pours glucose into the bloodstream for energy.  The pancreas is responsible for releasing insulin in response to spikes in blood glucose in order to balance out the level of blood sugar.  But when we are in fight or flight mode, the pancreas is signaled to hold back on sending out insulin because the body thinks we need this energy to combat a threat.  When we are chronically invoking the sympathetic nervous system to combat threats, the pancreas becomes numb to the amount of glucose in the bloodstream and stops regulating blood sugar properly.

Think of it like that story of the boy who cried wolf.  When there actually was a wolf, no one believed him or came to his defense.  When the pancreas is constantly being told to keep insulin from taking glucose out of the bloodstream because the body thinks we need the glucose for energy, this glucose keeps circulating instead of being balanced and stored in the cells.  (Insulin promotes storage of glucose to balance blood sugar levels.)  Additionally, because the body thinks you are constantly battling threats, it thinks it needs to keep refueling, increasing appetite and keeping you eating.  Have you ever noticed the more stressed you are, the more you eat?  Sure, some of that is emotional or stress eating; but there is also a physical component regulated by the chemical processes going on in the body that are literally confusing the system into thinking you need more fuel.  When that fuel isn’t actually used due to the lack of a true physical stressor requiring you to run for your life, that fuel eventually gets stored as fat.

The storing of glucose and insensitivity to insulin contributes to metabolic disease and type 2 diabetes.  The good news is these conditions are reversible.  The better news is you can avoid them altogether by practicing mindful eating and managing your stress levels.

Here is a list of some of the consequences of chronic stress on the body:

  • Increased belly fat – this visceral fat is the most dangerous type of fat on the body.
  • Elevated blood sugar – leads to insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and and metabolic syndrome.
  • Leaky gut – known as gastrointestinal permeability; affects absorption of nutrients and is tied to inflammation.
  • Inflammation – not just in the gut.  Think arthritis, psoriasis, migraines.
  • Dysbiosis – the more stressed we are, the more imbalanced our gut bacteria due to the breakdown of the digestive process.
  • Increased acid reflux, indigestion, GERD and ulcers – remember the enzymes and stomach acid are impaired with chronic stress.
  • Lowered immunity – just as the body will create new set points for weight (not always good ones) from yo-yo dieting, the body will also create a new set point for stress response.  When the body sets it too low, it gets stuck in survival mode and can’t shut it off.  Being in a heightened state of sensitivity to stress depresses the immune system’s ability to function.  Ever notice how you get sick after a very stressful event?  During acute stress, our immune functions are enhanced to help us get through the stressor.  Once we get through it, our body sort of crashes.  I would experience this at the end of many stressful semesters in school. I’d up the ante to study for and get through finals, and then I would get the flu or just crash right afterward.  However, the more chronically stressed you are, the more often you tend to catch every little thing.  The immune system becomes depressed.  When the immune system is depressed after being constantly active for so long, it makes us more susceptible to internal processes like cancer.

Whatever it Takes

When I saw the photo I used for this post, it triggered an a-ha moment.  One of the reasons we are so stressed is that we live with a mindset of needing to do whatever it takes to get the job done (or whatever other end-game is causing a constant high-gear state).  I would bet most people don’t even realize they live in a state of chronically high stress.  It isn’t until we try to relax that we notice how wired we are.  What occurred to me is my own transition from a high-stress mode of living.  Those words – whatever it takes – have taken on a whole new meaning for me in the past four years.  I no longer see them as words that drive me to external goals, increasing my stress level.  I see them as motivating me to reduce my stress and increase my health.  I have set standards for achieving wellness in myself and healing my body and mind.  I have committed to do whatever it takes to get there.

I have changed my focus in many respects.  I have shifted my priorities to put clean food and water before material wants.  I have shifted my time to ensure I make exercise and relaxation activities a priority over unnecessary activities.  I focus on gratitude over wanting things I do not need.  The environment in which I live has become very important.  Finally, I value the present moment over the past, and do not worry about things that have not happened.  I’ve learned to quiet my mind several times each day in order to ensure my parasympathetic nervous system has time to work to my benefit.

Test Yourself

Are you aware of your level of stress?  Take a moment to review the following questions:

  • Do you have tension in your body, especially in your neck and shoulders?
  • Is your breathing mostly shallow?
  • Do you often feel restless or have difficulty focusing/concentrating, being easily distracted?
  • Do you have difficulty falling asleep or wake during the night?
  • Is your sex drive low?
  • Do you grind your teeth while you sleep?
  • Are you easily irritated?

Answering yes to any one of these could point to other issues, but the more you have answered yes to, is an indicator of your level of stress.

Getting back to how you eat is one way of addressing the impacts of stress on digestion.  Managing stress overall is critical to your health.  But if I can at least get you to focus on one aspect, digestion, it will give you one more tool towards increasing wellness.  Mindful eating is one way to positively impact digestion.  Mindful eating means you actually sit down and eat a meal, free of distractions and technology.  Here are some ways you can create an environment that will promote better digestive health:

  1. Unplug – get away from the stressors and technology that keep your mind on high alert.  Sit down at the table with your food, and only your food.
  2. Breathe – slow everything down so you can deactivate the sympathetic nervous system and allow the parasympathetic nervous system to take over.  Close your eyes and take several slow, deep breaths before you start eating.  Think about the food you are about to it and how it will nourish your body.  Let everything else melt away.
  3. Stay present – eat slowly and consciously.  This means actually being aware of putting the food in your mouth, chewing slowly and thoroughly.  When we eat fast, it’s a signal to the body that we are stressed and the digestive process will not kick in.  Eat in nature whenever you have the opportunity.  A pleasant, calming surrounding will assist in bringing down your heart rate and allowing digestion to occur.  If you absolutely must eat at or near your desk, make it a quiet zone for the duration of your meal.  Close the door, put up a sign, let the outside world know you are unavailable while you nourish your body.

It takes 20 minutes for the signals to go from the stomach to the brain.  The faster we eat, the more we will eat before the brain can even send out the hormones that tell the body we’ve had enough.  So take your time by enjoying the tastes and textures of your food, chewing it until it’s liquid, and allowing the digestive process to truly begin in the mouth.  Go back and brush up on the digestive process as a reminder of the importance of these steps.

Next week we’ll dive into leaky gut and the difference between food allergies and food intolerances.  Until then, try changing up your eating routine and see what happens.

Yours in Wellness,


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