The importance of a stress-free environment while eating

It is very common for us to be multi-tasking while eating: we ‘eat on the run’, we eat while working, while having meetings, while watching TV or reading, while arguing with our children or fighting with our spouse. We eat while nervous or anxious or angry. We eat in a rush, we eat in our cars, we eat late at night. At best we are distracted while we eat, and at worst, we are under stress during meal times, neither being conducive to optimal digestion.

For healthy digestion to occur the ‘parasympathetic’ part of our autonomic nervous system needs to be active – the part that is responsible for resting, repair and digestion, but when we are under stress our sympathetic nervous system is more active, so energy is being diverted away from our digestive organs to support systems that are more important for dealing with stressful situations.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine there is a rich tradition and understanding of how food affects our body, and how certain food flavors and temperatures can be used to regulate health and overcome disease. In this tradition, it’s not only WHAT we eat, but HOW we eat that’s important. There are many recommendations of how to create the relaxed state that is optimal for our digestive system to function well:

  • Focus solely on your food – don’t distract yourself with TV or reading or even stimulating discussion.
  • Focus on the aroma, flavors and texture of the food.  In Chinese medicine, each flavor elicits a specific response in your body so it’s important to notice what you are eating.
  • Notice your breathing – making sure you are breathing deeply and evenly helps calm the nervous system.
  • Chew well – mechanically breaking down your food is an important first step in digestion – the better you chew, the more easily digestive enzymes can work on breaking down the food you put in your body.
  • Be in a relaxed, cheerful mood – connect with gratitude and joy.
  • Take a leisurely stroll after your meal – this will provide gentle stimulation after a meal and support good digestion.

This kind of focused attention to our food is similar to the focus that is required during meditation, which has been shown to be a great technique to lower stress and activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Engaging in ‘mindful eating’ allows us to experience what our food feels like in our body and will contribute to health and well-being. Happy eating.