When we start down the rabbit hole of healthy lifestyles, things can quickly get complicated...but they don’t need to.
If you’re thinking of implementing a restrictive elimination diet, buying a food journal to count your macros or pounding fistfuls of supplements, pump the brakes. There are a multitude of simple and free things you can do to improve your eating hygiene, which will boost your digestion and overall health.
Often overlooked, eating hygiene doesn’t mean washing your hands before picking up your fork (though you should probably do that, too). Instead, it relates to how and where you’re eating.
Before we jump into what that means, let’s take a step back and explain two different states of being: fight-or-flight (our sympathetic nervous system) and rest-and-digest (our parasympathetic nervous system). Fight-or-flight is activated when we’re stressed out while rest-and-digest engages when we’re relaxed.
Fight-or-flight exists for those times we need to either fight a predator or flee from one. These days, that situation is rare, but our bodies haven’t evolved to know the difference between running from a lion and fighting with our spouse, getting stuck in a traffic jam, smoking a cigarette or dealing with a difficult client at work.
Unfortunately, most of us are walking around in a perpetual state of fight-or-flight due to high levels of internal and environmental stress. That’s not beneficial for our health or our digestion because we were never designed to withstand a near constant onslaught of stress.
When fight-or-flight is activated, digestion slows causing symptoms like cramping, bloating, gas and constipation. After all, why would you care about digesting your food when you’re getting chased by a black bear?
On the other end of the spectrum, rest-and-digest allows our bodies to take their time while digesting. Our brains tell our mouths to produce saliva and our stomachs to start pumping out hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes, which help to break our food into small particles that can be absorbed by the small intestine.
When this doesn’t happen, our food sits in our bellies, rotting, putrefying and rancidifying. Because the food doesn’t get broken down effectively, our bodies can’t use the nutrients for fuel, leading to vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Those undigested food particles can also “leak” through our intestinal walls and enter the bloodstream where the immune system recognizes them as invaders and attacks. This leads to inflammation and in chronic cases, autoimmune diseases.
To minimize or eliminate these outcomes, eating hygiene is very important. Here are seven ways to engage your rest-and-digest system:
- Take five deep belly breaths before eating. This simple act signals to your body that there aren’t any immediate threats and it’s okay to relax.
- Look at and smell your food. This gives your brain a chance to send the message to the rest of your body that food is on the way. If you start salivating, you’ll know you’re on the way to good digestion.
- Eat at a table. As Michael Pollan says, a desk is not a table. Your car is also not a table. Nor are the bleachers at your daughter’s basketball game. Sitting down and being mindful about eating goes a long way in activating rest-and-digest.
- Chew well. If you watch most people eat, they chew 3-4 times per bite. Almost all mechanical digestion happens in your mouth, so give your body a helping hand and aim to chew 20-30 times per bite. Your food should resemble the consistency of peanut butter before you swallow.
- Enjoy what you’re eating. It sounds like a no brainer, but you should like what you’re eating. If you feel guilt about what you’re eating, you’re unintentionally activating fight-or-flight. So, if you’re going to eat the cake, just eat the cake and drop the negative feelings about it.
- Keep stimulants to a minimum. Caffeine, sugar and starchy carbs can rev up your system and throw your body into a sympathetic state. Reducing your consumption of these can help your body digest better. If you do consume these things, pairing them with a healthy fat and protein can regulate their metabolism into your system.
- Consider your toxic load. Household cleaners, heavy metals, smoke and other chemicals can wreak havoc on your body’s natural defenses. By eliminating chemicals from things like your beauty and cleaning products, you lessen the burden on the body and prevent it from staging a revolt in the form of chronic disease.