Foundations of Nutritional Therapy: Digestion Part 1 - The Brain
If you're reading this, it's because I haven't scared you away with those last few super long, super heavy posts. Well, I promised short and sweet and I'm delivering. But, just because this is a shorty doesn't mean it's any less important. In fact, if there was one post I'd want everybody to read, this would be it: the first part in a series on digestion.
If I were to ask you to name the first organ that comes to mind when I say, "digestion," what would it be? Stomach? Intestines? I bet hardly anyone thought of the brain. But the brain is actually one of the most important digestive organs.
There's a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is constantly assessing what's going on in and around the body. Based of what it's perceiving, it then communicates with a number of organs and glands through the autonomic nervous system (ANS). For example, when we find ourselves in a stressful situation, that stress message from the hypothalamus triggers the sympathetic mode of the ANS, or what's commonly known as the "fight or flight" response. That sympathetic message eventually ends up at the adrenal glands where stress hormones are released. During this process, our body shifts its focus to only the mechanisms that can help us get away from danger; the lungs, the heart, the muscles. In other words, when you're trying to escape a bear attack, your body is focused on getting the heck out of there safely, not digesting your breakfast.
Thankfully we don't have to worry too often about bear attacks. But we constantly deal with other stress-inducing factors that can shift us into the sympathetic state. What's more is we consistently eat while we're stressed! We eat as we run around to get ready for the day. We eat in our cars on the way to work. We eat in our offices as we try to play catch-up. Even being away from home in a foreign location is enough to flip us into an uncomfortable mental state - whether we realize it or not.
Like I said earlier, when we're stressed, our bodies aren't ready to digest food properly. This can lead to reflux or GERD, bloating, gas, belching, abdominal pain, food allergies, and all sorts of other unpleasant symptoms.
Simply taking a few relaxing breaths, sitting peacefully, smelling and connecting with your food, and surrounding yourselves with good company before and during a meal can switch off "fight-or-flight" and switch on "rest-and-digest", or the parasympathetic ANS state. Those are simple techniques you can bring anywhere. If you take time to enjoy the smells, sights, flavors, or even just idea of food, your brain sends the signal to start producing saliva and stomach juices, both of which help properly digest your food. More on that in the next post.
Quick addition. Some people have trouble switching between sympathetic and parasympathetic states. That's typically due to spending most, or all, of your time on one particular side of the fence. This leads to a loss of tone of the vagus, the nerve that helps flip the switch between ANS states. I'm currently experimenting with a blend of essential oils that helps rebuild and strengthen the vagal nerve. I'll let you know how it goes!
*** The information found on this website should not be construed as medical advice or treatment of medical conditions. Only your healthcare professional can provide you with medical advice. Consult your healthcare professional regarding all matters of your health and before making dietary changes.