The Science Behind Slow Eating

The Science Behind Slow Eating

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Eating Slow Feels Good!

Years ago, I co-directed an Ayurvedic in-residence wellness center with Dr. Deepak Chopra. We prescribed Ayurvedic treatments and guided patients through 1-3 week detoxification and rejuvenation programs. The organization we worked for had a handful of centers around the country, but ours was for more serious conditions, such as cancer and autoimmune diseases.

I would always ask patients, many of whom were terminally ill, the same question during their departure consultation: “What was the most valuable thing you experienced and learned here during your stay?” There was one surprising theme I heard over and over, far more than any other response.

Now, before I tell you what it was, you have to realize that this was back in the ’80s and, for almost everyone, it was the first time they ever practiced “exotic” things like yoga, pranayama, meditation, Ayurvedic panchakarma massage treatments, where they were massaged by two therapists at a time, or shirodharas, an ultra-relaxing therapy where warm oil is carefully poured across the forehead. All of these were administered as part of a comprehensive detoxification and rejuvenation retreat, but what people liked the most amazed me. Here are a few I remember clearly:

  • I realize now how enjoyable eating can be; I used to just wolf it down.
  • I learned how to stop, relax, and enjoy my food.
  • I used to eat like I was filling up my car with gas—fill up and go.
  • I now look forward to eating as a time to sit, relax, dine, and stop rushing.
  • I used to eat so fast that I never even tasted it. Now, I actually enjoy taking my time to eat.

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If you eat standing up, death looks over your shoulder.

I think we have all heard the importance and benefits of eating in a relaxed way, but many find it difficult. Even when I tell folks there’s an old Ayurvedic saying, “If you eat standing up, death looks over your shoulder,” and they know digestive disorders with serious health implications plague our society, they still find it challenging to take time to sit and eat slowly and calmly.

Therefore, I think it’s high time I lay out some simple science describing what happens to your body when you eat on the run without awareness versus when you eat slowly and mindfully.

Mindful Eating: The Basics

The sympathetic, fight-or-flight nervous system is triggered by stress: whether you are chased by a lion or eating on the run, the body perceives it as a fight-or-flight sympathetic stress.

The parasympathetic nervous system is the opposite: the calming, rejuvenating, repair-and-rebuild nervous system. It is there to repair damage caused by the fight-or-flight response, full of degenerative stress-fighting hormones. After experiencing stress, the body employs the parasympathetic nervous system for calming, reparative chemistry.

Eating is a particularly important time to relax because it boosts the parasympathetic nervous system. Once the parasympathetic system kicks in, it triggers a major, and I mean major, digestive response. Pretty much every digestive enzyme is activated by healthy parasympathetic activity.

Here are a few good reasons why it’s important to take time to relax and eat in a calm and peaceful way:1

Parasympathetic Activities that Aid Digestion

  • Salivation begins in preparation to digest a meal.
  • Responsible for tastes of food, particularly sour.
  • Triggers smell response to initiate digestion.
  • Triggers release of gallbladder bile.
  • Stimulates bile flow.
  • Stimulates pancreatic enzyme flow.
  • Stimulates enzymes from small intestines.
  • Stimulates HCl production in stomach.
  • Stimulates pepsinogen in stomach.
  • Stimulates mucus production in stomach.
  • Increases peristalsis, or healthy elimination.
  • Increases blood flow to digestive tract.

Now, that’s what I call digestive support!

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Ayurveda simply says that when one is stressed, it is better not to eat. Basically, eating while stressed, on the run, standing up, upset, driving, or in a hurry all activate a sympathetic response and decrease parasympathetic activity.

What’s worse is that stress, particularly while eating, activates sympathetic activity that does the exact opposite things of parasympathetic response: it actually slows, inhibits, and compromises the entire digestive system!1

The sympathetic response is how nature provides for our physiology to handle a stressful, survival situation—if a lion were to chase us, we wouldn’t sit down to dine; we would need all of our body’s resources to fuel us immediately to safety!

Eat Calm + Carry On

Now that you know the science behind the importance of eating your meals in a relaxed way with awareness, as opposed to on the go, mindlessly, or while stressed, it’s easy to see why, in our modern go-go-go culture, there are so many people with digestive troubles.

So, take it from those at the wellness center who had to learn the hard way: eat calmly, live long, and prosper!


1. Guyton and Hall. Textbook of Medical Physiology. Saunders. 2011. pages: 734,762,787,759,776,738.

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Dr. John

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