How many times this week have you eaten lunch hunched over your desk, crammed in a granola bar on your drive to pick up the kids, or otherwise felt rushed when you were eating? While it seems harmless to multitask your meals, it can actually be incredibly harmful to how your body processes and absorbs nutrients. In fact, being busy while you eat can affect your metabolism, and, over time, can contribute to chronic diseases like leaky gut and IBS.
When we eat, an astounding chemical cascade kicks into gear before we even take our first bite. You’ve experienced this when your mouth starts watering at the mere thought or sight of delicious food.
That’s because our brain is the first step in turning on the digestive system. When it senses that we’re getting ready to eat, it alerts the stomach to begin pumping out hydrochloric acid and tells the mouth to start salivating.
Made mostly of water, our saliva is a magical substance that also contains an enzyme called salivary amylase, which helps us to break down carbs. As we chew, the mechanical digestion of our teeth grinding mixes with the chemical digestion of the amylase and starts digesting our food before we even swallow.
As the food travels down into the stomach, the acid continues the chemical breakdown, while the churning of the stomach continues the mechanical side of the process. Once it’s sufficiently slurried, the broken-down food (called chyme) moves into the small intestine where the acid signals the pancreas to release sodium bicarbonate and enzymes. The chyme is neutralized by sodium bicarbonate and surrounded by digestive enzymes that break it down even further.
As it continues the journey through the small intestine, the chyme gets absorbed into the bloodstream, where the nutrients can go to work in our cells. Anything left over gets sent to the large intestine where it’s eventually excreted.
In a healthy, low-stress person, this process unfolds remarkably well. But let’s take a look at what happens if we’re rushing around instead of taking proper time to sit down and eat.
Without adequate time to get “excited” about eating, the brain doesn’t have a chance to signal the stomach and the salivary glands to kick into action, so the first critical piece of digestion is lost.
The majority of us aren’t chewing very well, either, so we’re missing out on the largest piece of mechanical digestion that’s available to us. When food leaves our mouths too quickly, salivary amylase doesn’t have much time to work its magic, so food gets to our stomach more or less in its whole form.
Because the stomach didn’t get the message from the brain to produce acid, it’s ill-equipped to break down large food particles, which means instead of getting turned into a healthy chyme slurry, food sits around putrefying, rancidifying, and fermenting.
When that happens, we feel the effects: bloating, burping, gas, and reflux are all symptoms of inadequate stomach acid production. Eventually, even if it’s not broken down properly, the food has to make its way into the small intestine. But without the necessary acid to trigger the sodium bicarbonate and enzymes, the still undigested food hits another snag.
As it moves through the rest of the digestive tract, it can’t be adequately absorbed, and ends up continuing to rot as it works its way out of the body. This looks like bloating, gas, and other digestive distress three to five hours after eating, rather than right away.
All in all, it’s not a pretty picture and can eventually contribute to long-term health issues, nutrient deficiencies, and a whole lot of uncomfortable symptoms.
But there’s something we can do to help: deep breathing. Even if we’re busy, we can give our bodies a helping hand by putting ourselves into a state of “rest-and-digest” instead of “fight-or-flight” when we’re eating.
- Before eating, take five deep belly breaths while looking at your food. This sends your body the message that it’s OK to relax and gives the brain a moment to alert the rest of the system that food is on its way.
- Chew well. You should aim for 20 to 30 chews per bite, and your food should resemble the consistency of peanut butter before you swallow. If you have trouble with this, try putting your fork down between bites.
- Eat at a table. As Michael Pollan says, “a desk is not a table.” You should also resist the urge to eat in the car or on the subway. Work to carve out time in your day for relaxed eating. Otherwise, you’ll likely have to carve out time in the future for doctor visits and costly procedures.
- Enjoy what you’re eating. Too often, we’re just eating to eat instead of savoring the experience. You should like what you’re putting into your body.
- If you’re dealing with digestive distress already, try a shot of apple cider vinegar or digestive bitters before you eat. You may also want to experiment with digestive enzymes while your gut is healing.
With a little practice and an eye toward mindfulness, it’s possible to train your body and brain to work in digestive harmony. Trust us: your gut will majorly thank you.