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WHAT we eat vs. HOW we eat… stress, digestion & weight.

With all of our society’s focus on WHAT we eat, and the numerous “PERFECT” diets out there, we assume that all we have to do to have the perfect health and body, is just eat THIS or THAT, but by now we know if it were that easy, we would all be walking around in pure joy and bliss and celebration of our physical bodies all the time… and that is NOT the case in our society right now.

So, all of scientific nutrition tells us that we are what we eat… and this is true to a certain degree, but… what we haven’t really understood yet is that HOW we eat is just as important.  Our body is a complicated ecosystem of functions… of mind and body.  Just think about it for a minute… when is the last time you had to tell your heart to beat or tell your lungs to breathe?  Never.  So what does that say about the body’s wisdom?  Right?  Yeah, pretty freaking incredible when you stop to think about it.

So, we’ve all been given these incredible bodies to carry us through life… to learn, to explore, to create relationships and pursue our passions…  and ALL WE HAVE TO DO IS TAKE CARE OF IT.  Seems like a pretty reasonable trade, am I right?  In all organisms, including humans, all cells, tissues, organs, and organ systems of the body work together to maintain the life and health of the organism.  Let’s follow suit and do OUR part.

Your body is a brilliantly functioning organism and it needs you to slow down and take care of it.  This is your part.

CONSIDER… our thoughts and our state of mind create our actions… and then our actions become habits.  If this is the case, then it all starts in our head.

In a society that prides itself on being “busy-er” than ever before, we have all begun to judge our value and worth on our ability to GET MORE THINGS DONE.  Because of this focus on achievement and success, our collective health is beginning to suffer. In creating a new and healthy relationship with food and body, we absolutely MUST cultivate an understanding of why we stress and how that stress impacts our health and our lifestyle and food decisions.

What is stress exactly?  We all know we have it, but where does it come from and how the heck do we get rid of it?

We feel stress as a very real thing…  but in actuality we CREATE STRESS in our head as a result of our thoughts.

The classic definition of stress is…

“Any real or imagined threat, and your body’s response to it.”

So by that definition, celebrations or tragedies can cause a stress response in your body.  Our bodies don’t know the difference between being chased by a tiger, dodging cars in rush hour traffic, arguing with our spouse, imagining the worst outcome of a relationship issue, an intense work conversation or a constant emotional assault caused by what we’re focused on and our negative self talk.

Once we feel stress, we should know that there is a cascade of stress hormones coursing through our bodies that is creating a reaction that we are feeling.  Each of these situations causes our bodies to go into a fight or flight response… we FEEL that as STRESS.

Did you know that stress directly affects digestion… which directly affects your metabolism… which directly affects your weight?  Yes, that is correct.

(Ok, stay with me, we’re about to dig deep into physiology…)

So, the key to understanding the profound link between metabolism and stress is looking at the central nervous system (CNS).  The portion of the central nervous system that exerts the greatest influence on gastrointestinal function is called the autonomic nervous system (ANS).  This particular aspect of the nervous system is highly involved in digestion. It is responsible for getting your stomach churning, for getting the enzymatic secretions in the digestive process flowing, and keeping the dynamic process of nutrient absorption into the bloodstream on the move.  The ANS also tells your body when not to be in digesting mode, such as when there’s no food in your belly…

…or when you’re in fight-or-flight response.

This is how…  Two subdivisions of the ANS (autonomic nervous system) help it accomplish its dual task of digestive arousal and digestive inhibition: these two subdivisions are the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches. The sympathetic branch activates the stress response and suppresses digestive activity.  The parasympathetic branch relaxes the body and activates digestion. It might be helpful to think of these two parts of the nervous system as on-and-off switches.

While under stress, your heart rate goes up, your blood pressure rises, and blood is shunted away from your midsection, going to your arms, legs, and head for quick thinking, fighting or fleeing.   All of these changes are referred to as the physiological stress response.  This stress response is your body’s brilliant way of maximizing resources and functions to ensure your best health. For a moment, think back to our ancestors… before modern day civilization, humans were coming in contact with things on a daily basis that were an actual threat to their lives… so the body’s wise design says “if you need to be escaping or fighting for your life, you don’t need to be digesting food… we will re-direct our energy and resources to the body so it can outthink, outrun or overpower this current threat.

Simply put, the same part of our brain that turns on stress turns off digestion.  And conversely, the part of the brain that turns on the relaxation response turns on full digestive power.  So, you can see that eating healthy nutritious food is only half of the story of good nutrition.  Being in the ideal state to digest and assimilate food is the other half.

The problem is… our body doesn’t now know the difference between a real threat or an imagined or mentally created threat.  Americans are in a constant state of stress… which means, we are eating in this same state… the physiological stress response.

Under those circumstances, your digestion completely shuts down.  If you are eating while your body is under the stress response… you could be eating the healthiest food in the world, yet you won’t be able to fully digest and assimilate that food, and your body will not be able to burn calories effectively.

It’s important to realize that all your thoughts and feelings create physiological changes.  Countless cells and systems you don’t even know about change with every emotion.

A good example of one of these delicate systems is called the cephalic phase of digestion.  This phase of digestion occurs even before food enters the stomach. It results from the sight, smell, thought, or taste of food.  This is just the first phase that the body goes into when in a state of relaxation, to receive nourishment and to begin to prime the rest of the body’s metabolism to burn food for fuel.  It is critical to our metabolism and nutritional health, for us to slow down.

The other downfall of eating while stressed is that if the neither the mind nor the body is really PRESENT to the experience, it’s almost as if it didn’t happen.  When we are rushing around, mindlessly eating on the go, we are not really HAVING the experience, so the body and the spirit are still craving that nourishment.  When we haven’t truly processed the experience we are also much more likely to be hungry for this experience again sooner, which can inevitably lead to eating more, which leads to excess weight in the body.

We must slow down and prioritize the nourishment of our bodies.

Action Step –  This week take 3 minutes before each meal to breathe and put the body into a state of relaxation to maximize digestive function.  Slow down while eating, taking time to enjoy the meal and be mindful that you are fueling your body.

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