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Years ago, I co-directed an Ayurvedic in-residence wellness center with Dr. Deepak Chopra. There, we prescribed specific Ayurvedic treatments and guided patients through 1-3 week long 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 our 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 that I heard over and over, and far more than any other response.
Now, before I tell you what it was, you have to realize that this was back in the eighties and, for almost everyone, it was the first time they ever practiced “exotic” things like yoga, pranayama, meditation, or had Ayurvedic panchakarma massage treatments where they were massaged by two therapists at a time, or had 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 the answers I kept hearing just amazed me. Here are a few that 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.
I think we have all heard of 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 that digestive disorders with serious health implications plague our society, they still find it challenging to take the time to sit, and eat slowly and calmly.
Therefore, I think it’s high time I lay out some of the very simple science that describes exactly what happens to your body when you eat on the run and without any awareness versus when you eat slowly and mindfully.
The sympathetic, or “fight or flight,” nervous system is triggered when you are under stress; whether you are being 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; it is the calming, rejuvenating, “repair and rebuild” nervous system. It is there to repair the damage caused by the “fight or flight” response that is full of degenerative stress-fighting hormones. After experiencing stress, the body employs the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in its calming, reparative chemistry.
Eating just happens to be a particularly important time to be relaxed 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 single digestive enzyme is activated by parasympathetic activity.
Here are a few good reasons, due to parasympathetic activity, why it is important to take the time to relax and eat your food in a calm and peaceful way: (1)
- Salivation begins in preparation to digest a meal.
- Responsible for the tastes of food, particularly sour taste.
- Triggers the smell response to initiate digestion.
- Triggers the release of bile from the gallbladder.
- Stimulates bile flow.
- Stimulates pancreatic enzyme flow.
- Stimulates enzymes from the small intestines.
- Stimulates HCl production in the stomach.
- Stimulates pepsinogen in the stomach.
- Stimulates mucus production in the stomach.
- Increases peristalsis, or healthy elimination.
- Increases blood flow to the digestive tract.
Now, that’s what I call digestive support!
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 the parasympathetic activity listed above that promotes digestion.
What is worse, is that stress, particularly while eating, activates the sympathetic activity that does the exact opposite things that the parasympathetic response does; 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!
Now that you know the science behind the importance of eating your meals in a relaxed way and with awareness as opposed to on the go, mindlessly or while stressed, it’s easy to see why, in our modern day go-go-go culture, there are so many people who have digestive troubles.
So, take it from those at the wellness center who had to learn the hard way – eat calmly, live long, and prosper!