Rest and Digest


Wouldn’t it be cool if we could turn our digestion on or off with a flick of a switch?  Imagine if you could actually control your body’s ability to metabolize and assimilate food.

Guess what?  You do have the power to flick an ‘on-off’ switch for your digestion and metabolic systems.  We know it as our central nervous system!  And depending on how it is responding to our environment, our thoughts, or our meal itself will determine whether or not that digestion switch gets turned “on” or remains “off” leaving us with the uncomfortable ill effects such as GERD, bloating, gas, or just a plain upset stomach.

Each of us has two really important aspects that we need to be aware of to better understand our control panel, so to speak.  

  1. The Sympathetic Nervous System – also known as “fight or flight” response and
  2. The Parasympathetic Nervous System – also knows as “rest and digest” response.

They each have a powerful and essential function, as you might imagine.

Our sympathetic nervous system kicks in whenever we‘re experiencing any kind of real or perceived threat. If fear, real or imagined, shows up in your thoughts or environment – being chased by a bear or running late for a plane, or the never ending to-do list full of urgent deadlines — or even judging ourselves for eating all that cake — we activate our Fight/Flight response and shift into a stress response.

As this occurs, our sympathetic nervous system moves our energy and blood flow out to our extremities so that we can fight or flee, escape the situation, or freeze in the presence of our stressor.  Our bodies prioritize managing the stress that it is under and blood flow moves away from our digestive track to our arms and legs so we can run for our lives.  Digestion is at the bottom of the priority list while in fight or flight mode.

The problem with the way we live today is that we remain in a fight or flight mode most of our days!  We may not be running from a bear but we run from one task to the other, constantly checking off items on our to-do list, going from one stressful situation to another. We eat meals on the run, shoving them down without ever fully chewing because who has time to eat?!

When was the last time you sat down, took a deep breathe, offered up gratitude for your meal and slowly chewed and enjoyed your food?  I am not talking about a quick family dinner in-between piano lessons and soccer practice but a leisurely meal where you allowed your body and mind to relax and savored the food before you.  I know, I know, this all sounds so indulgent and you are asking yourself, “Who has time for that?!”

The American way is to multi-task and unfortunately, living in a constant state of stress has become so the norm we do not even know how to relax and activate the parasympathetic nervous system anymore.   Even when we have the time and space to eat we “break” by reading the news on our cell phones or checking emails.  Trust me, that is not activating the parasympathetic mode.

I, myself, am very guilty of this.  I have struggled with low stomach acid for awhile now and supplement with HCL with Betaine as a result.  I was recently away at a five day retreat and conference with other functional medicine practitioners and by the second day I noticed that I needed less and less HCL with my meals to assist my digestion.  When I reflected upon this oddity I quickly realized that I was easily activating my parasympathetic state and was allowing my body to digest my food properly.  I was taking my time at meals to slowly chew, enjoy conversation and breathe!  Of course it helped that I did not have to prepare any of the meals and was not rushed to move onto the next task but still, it gave me a real life example of what it feels like to truly rest and digest.

My biggest take-away from that experience is that I may not be able to re-create an atmosphere in my everyday life where meals are cooked for me and all day I am doing what I love with no demands or pressures placed upon me but I can slow it down.  I can breathe deeply prior to eating and take a few moments to close my eyes and allow my mind and body to relax.  I can offer up gratitude for the food before me and savor each bite, chewing slowly.  I can look at meals as gifted breaks in my day to stop working, stop rushing and just be present. 

We cannot always control the stressors life places on us but we can absolutely control how we react to them.  We all need to eat and if we are not making an effort to eat while rested we are often times doing more harm than good.  I encourage you to take some time to bring awareness to your body and your mind while consuming your next meal.  Remind yourself to BREATHE, SLOW DOWN and ENJOY YOUR FOOD!  Just like everything else in life, this is a practice and for some, like myself, it will take some re-training and intentional effort but trust me, your belly will thank you for it.


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