People looking to better their health and diet can spend so much time and money on what they eat, but unfortunately, if your body is not able to absorb it, it becomes a complete waste. Each of us have a highly intelligent system at work in our bodies that regulates what tasks our bodies will prioritise. This system is called the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and can be divided into 2 parts:
Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)
This system has evolved to be able to help us survive situations that we have deemed to be dangerous. Imagine an ancestor is sitting in an almost dark cave, when suddenly a growl is heard in the darkness. Suddenly their heart begins to race, their breath rate increases and becomes shallower, the pupils dilate, the mouth gets dry as they start to get ready to run or fight. In this moment, the body’s priority has become survival.
You too may have had an acute experience with the sympathetic nervous system being dominant. Maybe before a test or a big meeting in which you were very nervous or even scared. You may experience diarrhea or the need to run to the bathroom to vomit. This is because your SNS has decided that the body needed to de-prioritise digestion and simply evacuate the body of food.
The reason that non-essential bodily functions are slowed or shut down (such as the immune and digestive system) is so that your body can reserve energy needed by vital organs like the heart and lungs. In this state, your body can concentrate on taking action that will alleviate the danger.
In short term situations, the SNS is extremely useful and can guarantee our survival. A problem starts to appear is if the SNS is continually running in the background due to prolonged worry, stress or fear. We are generally exposed to many stresses in a modern life such as deadlines, needing to meet high expectations from ourselves or others, relationships with family or partners, financial security, maintaining appearance or comparison on social media, just to name a few.
Research suggests that chronic stress contributes to high blood pressure, promotes the formation of artery-clogging deposits, and causes brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction. More preliminary research suggests that chronic stress may also contribute to obesity, both through direct mechanisms (causing people to eat more) or indirectly (decreasing sleep and exercise).
You can read more about what negative effects prolonged stress has on the body here:
Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS)
This is the system that is running when we are relaxed and are feeling safe. Often it is associated with the term; “Rest and Digest”. This is sometimes known as the relaxation response, as it affects the entire body. All of the body’s housekeeping tasks are now prioritised. The body focuses on digestion, the immune system and healing. A lot of the rebalancing of the body occurs during sleep. In order for a restive rejuvenating sleep, it is necessary to feel at ease and the PNS be dominant.
Digestions function is to break down what you eat into an absorbable form. This is then carried to your cells for energy and nourishment. PNS stimulates digestion through increasing the blood flow directly to your digestive tract. Your salivary gland is stimulated; increasing the saliva that contains enzymes which begins the digestion process. Peristalsis (the movement of food through our bowels) is increased and rather than using glucose for fuel (as with the SNS), your body fat is utilized via the parasympathetic system. Without a properly functioning PNS, it becomes more difficult to store and burn body fat.
A poor or malfunctioning digestive system can cause a wide range of health disorders, some of which can be life threatening. When you are chronically stressed, it will be impossible for your body to absorb the nutrients, it will have difficulty breaking down the fats, which then may be deposited onto the blood vessels in your body.
Activating The PNS
For these reasons, it is crucial that we move towards having a relaxed state of being while eating a meal. In days gone by, it was customary to pray and give gratitude before eating. Other than any spiritual reasoning, this is a genius way for our body to begin to prepare to receive all the goodness that is about to be ingested. In today’s world, many don’t even stop what they are doing at meals; they may get a bite to go, possibly watch something or scroll through social media. All of this is likely to wind up the SNS and may have a negative impact on our overall health.
Here are a few simple tips in order to be in optimal condition to receive your meal.
1. Take 1 minute of silence before eating: In this moment, you may want to close your eyes and bring your attention to your breath. Simply stopping all activity for a moment and arrive in the present. It is a chance to do nothing, simply to be here, now. Most of our day we are running from task to task, constantly needing to be busy. When we stop, we can begin to notice our state of being which is reflected in the breath. You will notice your breath begin to slow down as the PNS begins to be activated.
2. Belly Breath: When we are anxious and stressed, we tend to breath into the upper parts of our lungs. This requires a lot of energy as it is very inefficient. When the PNS is dominant, we relax these extra muscles and begin to rely on the diaphragm. On inhalation, the diaphragm contracts and descends onto the abdominal contents, causing the belly to move outwards. On exhalation, the diaphragm relaxes and the belly returns. By switching to this breathing pattern our PNS starts functioning.
3. Exhale longer: As described above, exhalation is a passive process. By exhaling longer than we inhale, we start to move towards relaxation. Try using a ratio of 1:2, ie; breathing out twice as long as you breath in. While doing so, ensure that you are not contracting your abdominal muscles to push the air out of your lungs.
4. Turn off: Ideally it is recommended to turn off any stimulating noises or distractions. This would mean aeroplane mode so that you are not answering emails, texts or flicking through your phone. If possible, try to eat your meal in a silent place, if this is like a garden or in nature. As you can see in this paper, by simply spending 20 minutes a day in nature, your stress hormones will be significantly lowered.
5. Chew your food: Often we are in a rush to get through our meal that we hardly even taste it. One of the most critical stages of digestion is in the mouth. Allowing the saliva to start the process of breaking down our meal. It is also said in yoga, that the most prana is absorbed by the body through the tongue. If we are not doing this, our system has to work harder to get less.