This article is part of a series on the process and benefits of conscious eating. If you want to receive the additional articles in this series free by email as they’re released, click here.

Most people think that when you put food in your mouth, digestion begins. It makes sense, right? Hey, I’m eating something, therefore my body will digest it.

That’s an oversimplification.

When I talk about unhealthy eating triggers, I mention the mood-food connection. The short story is that your mood influences your relationship with food. Well, your mood also influences digestive function.

Without getting too scientific, let’s put moods into two categories: sympathetic and parasympathetic. Your sympathetic nervous system is your fight or flight system. Your parasympathetic system is your calming system.

Sadness, anxiety, impatience, and anger are all moods connected to the sympathetic system. They’re stress-filled moods.

Happiness, hopefulness, and gratitude are all moods connected to the parasympathetic system. They’re moods absent of stress.

Think of the systems as an on-off switch. When stress happens, the switch is flipped on (sympathetic state) and all energy is directed to the survival systems (fight, move, sight, reflex, hearing). When that switch is turned off, energy can be directed to other systems (digestion, sleep, relaxation, etc.).

In today’s modern world, we spend far too much time in a sympathetic state due to career demands, full schedules, debt, traffic, and negative news. Often, we’re shoveling in food while in this stress response.

The problem is that the digestive system is turned off in the sympathetic state. And when digestion is inhibited, that’s when you experience a range of digestive issues. You’ll also have trouble getting the nutrients from the food you eat to your cells, leading to deficiencies.

The problems that occur when digestion is interrupted create a vicious cycle, too. Mood doesn’t just influence gut, the signal goes both ways. If your gut is having issues, that dysfunction will alter your mood.

Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen.

The parasympathetic response dilates blood vessels leading to the GI tract, increasing blood flow. Additionally, salivary gland secretion and peristalsis are activated by the parasympathetic system. Peristalsis is the rhythmic contraction of the digestive tract that moves food properly through the body.

A big benefit to conscious eating is that you ensure you’re in a parasympathetic state, activating digestion, every time you eat. So, what are the action steps?

Step One: Flip the switch with a simple breathing exercise.

Deep breathing is the best way to quickly turn off the sympathetic state and turn on the parasympathetic state.

Take a deep breath in your nose, hold for five seconds, and then make a small circle with your lips to exhale through. Breathe out at a steady pace for as long as possible.

Repeat this process for a total of five breaths. Engage in this breathing pattern before every meal. Yes, you can do this without being the awkward girl at the table.

Step Two: Clear your mind and remove distractions.

It doesn’t matter how full your to-do list is today or how many things have gone wrong. Right now, you have a chance to remove yourself from all of that and enjoy some amazing food. That’s a key component of a healthy lifestyle.

Whenever you sit down to a meal, remind yourself that everything you’re worrying about will still be around to worry about later. Let it go for 20-30 minutes. Additionally, turn off devices and focus on the people you’re with. If you’re alone, just sit and be present. 

Step Three: Pace your eating.

Fast-paced eating creates a physiological stress response and begins to activate the sympathetic nervous system, turning off digestion. Eating slowly isn’t just about mindfulness, it’s about maintaining proper digestion.

One of the ways you can train yourself to eat more slowly is to put your fork down after every bite, reorganize your posture, and focus intently on the texture and flavor of the food. Holding your fork while hunched over your plate promotes the shoveling method; avoid that.

Give it a shot.

Eating healthy is not just about what you’re putting in your body, it’s about how you’re eating. You have a choice at every meal to activate digestion so the body can function properly. Now that you understand the second half of the mood-food connection, you’re able to start winning with food on a whole new level.

Don’t forget: these action steps are to be used in conjunction with the action steps we talked about in part two.

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