Many of us are becoming health conscious about food. We recognize that the foods we eat can either facilitate healing or contribute to illness and inflammation. But, it is not just what we eat that matters, how we eat is also essential for the cultivation health. Are you hurried when you eat? Are you angry? Anxious? Resentful? Sad? Feeling worthless? What is your state of mind when you eat, and why does it matter?
For years, as a physician in the emergency department, I spent the majority of my days in a rushed, highly stressed environment. Even as I counseled my patients about the importance of reducing stress in their lives, I perpetuated my own stressful lifestyle. I learned to adapt to the demands of my work by stopping only momentarily to shovel food into my mouth, and then I would race back to my patient care duties. Eating in this way, I neglected my body’s natural digestive processes and ignored the messages my body sent about its readiness to receive food. Looking back, it is no wonder I struggled with digestive problems.
Currently, over 200 million health care visits per year in the United States are for people with digestive problems, such as irritable bowel, gastro-esophageal reflux, indigestion, inflammatory bowel conditions, colitis, diarrhea, constipation, bloating and just plain abdominal pain. In our fast-paced society, our bodies – particularly our digestive systems – are reeling with the repercussions of stress.
We know intuitively that stress affects the digestive system. But, how does it work? As far as your nervous system is concerned, there are two dominant modes: stressed and relaxed. When you perceive stress, your sympathetic nervous system becomes activated and powers a “fight-or-flight” response. During this stress response, hormones and peptides, such as adrenaline and cortisol, pump through the body resulting in decreased support for digestion. At the same time, the heart speeds up to pound blood to the skeletal muscles enabling you to escape, or face, whatever danger is perceived. Once the danger is over, however, the nervous system is supposed to return to a more relaxed state, which is controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system. Close your eyes, and picture something serene. Breathe deeply for 10 breaths. You have just activated the parasympathetic system. The peptides and hormones released in this state result in improved digestion. Healing, growth, regeneration, and renewal all happen more effectively when the body is in the relaxed parasympathetic state.
When we experience chronic unremitting stress, the sympathetic system strengthens, similar to the way a muscle is strengthened when you exercise it. When this happens, the parasympathetic nervous system pathways become weaker with under-usage. There are many repercussions from this resulting imbalance including, chronic inflammation, impaired healing, and improper digestion. Therefore, to facilitate healing, we must retrain and remind our bodies to operate in the more relaxed, parasympathetic mode. This is especially true during mealtimes.
Habits, however, can be difficult to change. This is where mindfulness can help. By developing mindfulness, we step outside of our habituated subconscious habits and can become aware of both the food we are eating, as well as the conditions of our bodies when we eat.
As I began to take my own steps toward healing, I shifted my diet to eliminate unhealthy, potentially inflammatory foods. But, initially this made me miserable. I kept thinking about all the foods that I could no longer eat. I felt like my dietary shift was a cruel form of punishment. Even though I was attempting a positive change, I felt resentful, bitter, and angry. When it came to eating, I had no joy or gratitude.
Then, it dawned on me that food could no longer be about all the things that I could not eat and could not have. Instead, I began to focus on what I could do with nutrition to create health in my body. I still avoided the foods that would irritate my body, but I reframed my thoughts about food. I began to focus on adding an array of delicious, nutritious foods into my diet and I began to do it with joy and gratitude. This lead to a profound shift in being that allowed my body to facilitate digestion and healing.
A calm, peaceful, and grateful state of mind can create a state of being that then shifts our bodies biochemically. We begin to operate in a way that more effectively absorbs, processes, and utilizes the food we eat. For me, this shift didn’t happened over night. And, I haven’t been able to miraculously make all the stress in my life disappear. Real life stressors are going to occur. But, by practicing mindfulness daily, I have become less reactive to stress, and more empowered. Developing a keen awareness of the present conditions helps me to prevent my mind, or body, from getting carried away with stressful thoughts or events. My body feels the benefits.
When we are facing an illness, we often want a sweeping miracle to shift us out of the present moment and into a place of healing. We want something, or someone, that will fix us, make us feel better, and make our pain disappear. I can certainly relate to this. And yet, ironically, I have found a tremendous amount of healing by staying with each present moment, no matter how difficult. I have learned how to listen to what my body, and my soul, are trying to tell me. I make a point of remaining attentive to the small but miraculous moments throughout each day. In embracing these moments with a sense of forgiveness, gratitude, and kindness something like serenity surfaces. In this, there is healing.