Larissa Hall Carlson, Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health
Turns out that how we eat is just as important as what we eat, and the how of eating is all about slowing down and heightening mindfulness. Remarkably, roughly a third of the nervous system runs right through the abdomen, so the state of the nervous system directly affects digestion. When the sympathetic, “fight-or-flight” system is in charge, digestive strength is reduced; when the parasympathetic, “rest and digest” system takes over, digestive power is prime. This direct connection from the brain to the intelligence of the gut is often referred to as the “second brain” or “belly brain”—the mind in the middle.
Ever noticed a sudden lack of appetite when someone starts arguing at the dinner table? You’re experiencing the sympathetic nervous system kick into gear. It’s a state of heightened mental exertion that inhibits digestion in order to prioritize blood and energy flow to other parts of the body. Essentially, the body shuts down digestive power until the stressors are gone and the coast is clear. So you might spend precious time and money procuring the best organic, local, seasonal food, but if you’re eating it while stressed, you won’t be able to digest it well. That’s why eating in a revved-up state often results in indigestion, gas and bloating, and other digestive woes.
The good news is that when you sit down to savor a meal in a comfortable environment and relaxed manner, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over—supporting healthy digestion and enhanced satisfaction.
Take your healthy-eating practice to the next level with these tips:
Set the table with mindful attention.
Just as we create a soothing mood for yoga class—using soft lighting and putting on relaxing music—we can create an environment for the meal that dramatically affects enjoyment. If your dining table has been taken over by piles of mail or laundry to fold, clear it off. Put fresh flowers in a vase, light a candle, put out place settings, use your “special” dishware on a regular night—even when you’re eating alone. The act of mindfully setting the table will support you in relaxing and being more present with your meal.
Gather everything you need before you sit down.
Once seated for a meal, it’s best not to jump up and run back to the kitchen to get something—it disturbs the flow and stimulates the nervous system. So, before sitting down to eat, make sure you’ve gathered everything you (and your guests) need—extra napkins, spices, condiments, water, etc. Then sit and eat slowly, savoring the aroma, taste, and texture of each delicious bite in this lovely setting.
Say grace, your way.
After spending energy in the “doing” of cooking, consciously allow yourself to sink back into “being” so you can savor the meal and be present with yourself, guests, or family. Take a few relaxing breaths to help you land in your seat. Then, silently or as a group, take a moment to focus on gratitude and the gifts of the meal—the people, the place, the new recipe you adventurously tried!
Enjoy nourishing conversations.
To remain in a relaxed parasympathetic state, it helps to keep mealtime conversations positive. Guide discussions toward highlights from recent adventures, new intentions, healthy recipe ideas, recent accomplishments, vacation brainstorming, and amusing stories. Be nourished by every aspect of the meal.