Mindful Eating and Your Stress Response

Eating is an important aspect to human survival. As important as eating is why are we constantly eating in a rush and not taking the time to sit down and enjoy. Not sitting down and taking the time to eat might be causing your body more harm than good. For example, are you constantly feeling bloated? Feeling like you’re constantly eating? Or do you feel like your dinner is always gone in two seconds? If you answered yes to any of these questions I have some follow up questions for you. How long does it take you to eat breakfast? Lunch? Dinner? What are you thinking about while you’re eating?

If you’re constantly eating while being distracted your activating your body’s stress response. Your body sees distractions as stressful. While your body is extremely smart it cannot tell the difference between actual stress and whatever is distracting you while you’re eating. Its 2020 but your body is still living in the time of cavemen. So while your distraction might be what’s on TV, your body is thinking you’re getting chased by a bear and the “fight or flight” response is activated. Thus activating 18 different processes. For example, your blood pressure will rise, digestion is suppressed, immunity is suppressed, glucose is released, you’re going to retain fluid, fat will be deposited, and you energy will decrease. If the stress sticks around and becomes chronic then you have a recipe for disaster. Lets start with immunity being suppressed. During acute stress (short term) immunity is enhanced. However, during chronic stress excess cortisol (stress hormone) surpasses the ability of the white blood cell to secrete chemical messengers, your immune cells now cannot communicate with each other, cannot fight infections, and now cortisol can act as a signal to the immune cells to shut off, which will cause cells to die.

Digestion is also impacted when we are stressed. When we are constantly in the “fight or flight” stress response your body does not care about digesting food. Because your body is not thinking about digesting your food it is going to produce less digestive enzymes and less hydrochloric acid. Both enzymes and hydrochloric acid are located in the stomach and without these your body cannot break down, digest, and absorb nutrients. Think about the most nutritious meal that you eat. Maybe it’s a salad maybe it is a smoothie. If you’re eating while stressed the nutritional value of this meal doesn’t matter. Your digestive system cannot absorb the nutrients because it is stressed. Also during stress your body cannot metabolize fatty acids. Because of this your body will break down muscle and then replace it with stored fat and excess fluid resulting in weight gain over time. To provide additional energy excess glucose is released into the blood stream. For the excess glucose to be delivered the pancreas will release additional insulin. Research suggests that this can create cravings for high sugary foods.

Other consequences of chronic stress include a decrease in your body’s basal metabolic rate, meaning your body wont be burning as many calories, diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, insomnia, decrease in sex drive, concentration, memory, and your choices in food.

How can I make it so my body properly digests the food I eat?

For your body to properly digest food it needs to be in a parasympathetic state, commonly called “rest and digest.” Constantly having those distractions will not allow your body to enter that “rest and digest” state. This is where mindful eating comes into play. It has been shown to reduce digestive issues by bringing your body out of a stressful state so you can focus on eating and digesting. So next time you eat set a timer for 20 minutes, actually sit down, turn off your distraction, chew your food, and think about how it tastes, and the texture of your food. If you’re wondering why the you’re setting a timer for 20 minutes it is because it takes 20 minutes for your body to process and your brain to recognize fullness. So if you’re constantly scarfing down your food and wondering why you’re still hungry maybe its because you aren’t giving your body a chance to recognize that it is full.

(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Breton J. Gut Commensal E. coli Proteins Activate Host Satiety Pathways following Nutrient-Induced Bacterial Growth. Cell Metabolism . 2016;23(9):324-334.

Cherpak CE, Van Lare, Sherryl, MS CNS LDN. Mindful Eating: A Review Of How The Stress-Digestion-Mindfulness Triad May Modulate And Improve Gastrointestinal And Digestive Function. Integrative Medicine. 2019;18(4).

Talbott SM. The Cortisol Connection: Why Stress Makes You Fat and Ruins Your Health - and What You Can Do about It. Alameda, CA: Hunter House; 2007.