Let’s set the scene!
Imagine if you were sitting down to eat a meal and you hear a loud bang! Someone hit your car, alarms were blaring and car parts were scattered everywhere. Now imagine you sit down to eat after having a stressful day at work. Emails are flooding in, your phone won’t stop ringing and you can’t stop thinking of everything that you need to take care of at home.
Both situations are stressful. However, your body does not categorize the two stressors and handle them differently. In scenario one, you would likely put your meal away and choose not to eat because you need to address what is going on outside. However, in scenario two you are more likely to try to quickly eat your meal in between everything you have going on. You simply don’t have time to take a break. Eating when you are stressed or when you are feeling amped up may be problematic not only with fat loss or composition changes but it can also impact health markers and overall well-being.
What does the science say?
The autonomic nervous system is comprised of two components, the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. The parasympathetic nervous system is more well known as the “rest and digest state” because stress hormones decrease, heart rate is slow and blood flow increases to the digestive tract. On the contrary, the sympathetic nervous system is commonly known as flight or fight, and when the activity of the sympathetic nervous system increases an individual can experience an increase in blood pressure along with decreased blood flow to the digestive system, a decrease in mucosal secretion, and inhibited motility.  . Thus, if we regularly eat meals in a sympathetic state it can negatively impact digestion and over the long -term, it can impact the health of the gut .
Stress is not always negative and acute stress may promote adaptive responses . However chronic, unmanaged stress above a certain threshold may suppress the parasympathetic system which can then lead to maladaptation of the peripheral nervous system (PNS). If you find that you are often stressed and you are eating while stressed, you may benefit from intentionally working to get into more of a “rest and digest” state before eating. That might seem tough but it just takes some conscious effort and practice.
What can you do to slow down for meals?
We can’t ask life to slow down or try to have a time out
- Take 5 to 6 deep breaths through your nose before eating.
- When you are eating, chew your food completely & put your utensils down in between each bite.
- Put away your tech devices while eating AKA no phone, computer, and TV.
- Block out time to eat just like you would an appointment.
- Try to eat at a dining table or a space separate from your work.
Life is going to continue to happen and we can’t ask for things to slow down. So the goal is to adjust our approach and find systems that you can actually apply & don’t become just “one more thing” on your to-do.
- Lechin, F., & van, d. D. (2009). Central nervous system plus autonomic nervous system disorders responsible for gastrointestinal and pancreatobiliary diseases. Digestive Diseases and Sciences, 54(3), 458-70. doi:http://dx.doi.org.pointloma.idm.oclc.org/10.1007/s10620-008-0369-99
- Stanfield, C. L. (2017).Principles of human physiology.Harlow,Essex, England:Pearson Education Limited.
- Browning, K. N., & Travagli, R. A. (2014). Central nervous system control of gastrointestinal motility and secretion and modulation of gastrointestinal functions. Comprehensive Physiology, 4(4), 1339–1368. doi:10.1002/cphy.c130055
- Schneiderman, N., Ironson, G., & Siegel, S. D. (2005). Stress and health: psychological, behavioral, and biological determinants. Annual review of clinical psychology, 1, 607–628 doi:10.1146/annurev. linpsy.1.102803.144141