A person’s eating behaviour is not only determined by hunger, or the biological need for food in order to maintain energy and nutritional balance. Instead, our eating behaviour is also strongly influenced by our immediate environment, one in which palatable food is readily available. Such an environment encourages us to eat without the physiological need for nourishment, even when we are not hungry.
At the same time, due to our fast-paced lives, we look for easy solutions to satisfy hunger or intense emotions, without taking enough time to eat or observe our feelings and emotions in order to make conscious choices about what, how much, why and how we eat.
Unconscious eating not only leads to poorer food choices, but also makes us less aware of the body and the compromised functioning of its digestive system.
In contrast to unconscious eating, mindful eating is about the connection between the mind and body. When we eat mindfully, we are paying attention to our experience of food, our feelings, our external and internal impulses for eating.
Through mindfulness, we stimulate the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”) and modulate stress responses. At times of stress, the sympathetic nervous system is dominant, diverting the flow of blood from the digestive tract to the organs that ensure our immediate survival. Consider what your normal day looks like and you’ll quickly see that throughout it you experience stress in different forms and intensities.
By activating the parasympathetic nervous system, the digestive tract functions better – with improvements in peristalsis, the secretion of digestive enzymes, hormones and stomach acid, and the absorption of nutrients.
What is mindful eating?
Mindful eating is eating in the here and now, being aware of our feelings and our body, and not judging ourselves. When we eat mindfully, we pay attention only to the food in front of us, perceiving it with all our senses and focusing on the experience of eating.
While doing so, we make sure to remove or reduce any distractions that might divert our attention elsewhere (such as a phone, computer, conversation, stress, etc.).
By eating mindfully our focus is on what food are we eating, why are we eating it (are we stressed or actually hungry), how are we eating it (in front of the TV, too fast), and how we feel physically and mentally while eating it (feeling heavy in the stomach, feeling guilty, etc.).
What causes stress?
Every day our bodies face a variety of challenges to which they have to adapt. There are many different causes of stress:
- physical stress (e.g. intense exertion, insomnia, chronic conditions, excess weight);
- chemical stress (e.g. alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, pesticides);
- mental stress (e.g. perfectionism, worries, anxiety);
- emotional stress (e.g. feelings of guilt, loneliness, sadness, fear);
- dietary stress (e.g. food allergies/intolerances, nutrient deficiencies, excessive intake of saturated fat and sugar);
- traumatic stress (e.g. injuries, surgery, bacterial or viral infections, etc.);
- psychological/psychosocial stress (e.g. relationship problems, financial or career pressures).
Negative internal or external stimuli trigger physiological responses and various processes that activate the “fight or flight” response with the aim of restoring the equilibrium that existed before the stimulus occurred.
As long as the stressors are acute, meaning that they are quickly resolved and the body is restored to equilibrium, they are not harmful to the body. In fact, the primary effect of the stress hormone cortisol is anti-inflammatory. However, when the stressors are not resolved, this leads to chronic stress, which has a long-term negative impact on the functioning of the body. It also has a major impact on the digestive system, since it is innervated by the parasympathetic nervous system, which is active when we are relaxed, unlike the sympathetic nervous system. Studies over the last decade have shown a strong connection between the brain and the gut, which is referred to as the gut-brain axis.
What are the long-term effects of chronic stress on digestion?
Chronically elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol can lead to a weakened digestive tract:
- impaired secretion of digestive hormones and enzymes;
- changes in peristalsis (an increase or decrease);
- reduced blood flow to the digestive tract;
- reduced secretion of stomach acid;
- reduced production of serotonin (which is important in peristalsis and pain perception);
- dominance of the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”);
- impaired activity of the vagus nerve, which is part of the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”);
- reduced absorption of nutrients.
All this results in abdominal pain, nausea, bloating, chronic diarrhoea or constipation, heartburn, as well as increased intestinal permeability and resistance to the anti-inflammatory effects of cortisol… All of which, in turn, results in increased local and systemic inflammatory processes and nutrient deficiencies, which can cause various chronic non-communicable diseases.
How does mindful eating improve digestion?
Nowadays, we tend to eat unconsciously due to the demanding and fast pace of life. We eat because we are stressed, because we are sad or angry, we eat in front of the TV or while working at the computer, we only chew food a few times before swallowing it… All of this affects our digestive function, resulting in bloating, difficulties with bowel movements, undigested food in the stool, abdominal pain, heartburn or acid reflux, and other chronic diseases seemingly unrelated to digestion.
We can improve our eating habits through various techniques of mindfulness and mindful eating, as outlined below.
- Eating begins before we even put food in our mouths. It starts with the cephalic phase, when we start thinking about food, when we smell it, feel it in our hands or mouths… Already at this stage, our bodies start to prepare to receive food. Today, we often skip this part, for example when we get food delivered to our workplace and eat it while working at the computer, without using any of our senses.
Take time before you start eating and engage all your senses. Smell the food, focus on its taste and aroma, and also pay attention to how it feels to the touch (e.g. is the food hot, what texture does it have), as this will stimulate the release of digestive juices and aid peristalsis.
- We face stressful situations throughout the day, from the moment we get up in the morning to when we go to bed at night. Above, we have already seen how stress affects digestion.
We thus recommend that you spend at least 5 minutes on some relaxing breathing techniques or a short meditation before having a meal. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which stimulates the whole digestive tract, whose activity decreases during stressful moments.
- When we eat mindfully we pay more attention to the food once it is in our mouths, keeping it there longer and chewing it more thoroughly than we would otherwise.
Chewing is the mechanical breakdown of food, whereby we tear it into smaller pieces, increasing its surface area to allow digestive enzymes to access it more easily, so that food is broken down chemically while still in the mouth. Chewing also helps to prepare the rest of the digestive tract for the intake of food and more efficient functioning.
The fast pace of life means that we often skip or fail to carry out these important early stages of digestion that we can fully control ourselves. So what can we do to improve these early stages?
How to eat mindfully?
There are several techniques that can help us to eat mindfully. To get started, choose just one technique, preferably the one that you find most helpful (e.g. chewing each mouthful several times or eating at the table). Start introducing it at one meal a day, then gradually add other meals and techniques.
Some examples of mindful eating techniques:
- Eat at the table without distractions (phone, newspaper, TV, etc.).
- Chew each bite at least 15 times and eat more slowly.
- Put your knife and fork down between bites and pick them up again after swallowing.
- When you eat mindfully, you are also more conscious of your food choices, and you can focus on the present and ask yourself, without judgment: “Will this meal support my body? Do I really need this meal at this moment? Do I even feel hungry?”
- Sit down at the table and practice conscious breathing. Connect your breath to your mind and body. When you are calm, start your meal.
- Before putting food in your mouth, ask yourself: “How do I feel? Am I upset? How can I calm down?” Eat in a calm state.
- When you eat or drink, engage all your senses and observe the textures, smells, flavours, aromas, weights, shapes, colours, and so on.
To become more aware of the impact of stress on eating and well-being, it helps to keep a mindful eating diary, in which you record the time and level of stress, your symptoms and feelings, and your eating habits in relation to these factors.
The brain and gut are closely linked through our nervous and hormonal systems. The incidence of digestive problems is increasing due to exposure to chronic stress and poor eating habits. Mindfulness can be an excellent starting point for identifying stress, and mindful eating can help us change our eating habits, as we can limit the influence of our emotional states on our food choices. As such, mindfulness is something that we should all be focusing on more.