Digestion Begins Before We Even Start Eating Food!
That’s right! The first phase of digestion is referred to as the Cephalic phase. Cephalic refers to the head, so digestion begins in the mind. No, really! You don’t have digestive enzymes in your brain lol, but when you see food or even think about it, a signal is sent to the cerebral cortex, the hypothalamus and medulla oblongata are then activated, which stimulate the vagus nerve, signaling the stomach to begin secreting digestive enzymes. The smell of food also signals the stomach.
In this sense, the more attention we give to our food, the better. If we are cooking our own meal, the smells are hitting our nostrils and activating our digestive system. We are also sharing time with the food – this sends signals through our eyes, to our brains, down the nervous system and to the stomach. It may take 20 minutes to cook a meal, in which time our digestive system has made preparations for the intake of food. But if we drive through a fast food window and begin eating immediately, we have not given our digestive system the proper prompting.
Keep Calm and Eat
Along the same vein (no pun intended), the digestive system shares a direct connection to the central nervous system (CNS). If you remember from biology, the CNS is involved in the “fight/flight” response. When we are in a calm state, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is activated, and when we are in a stressed state, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is active. The SNS is associated with fight/flight, so we do not want to be in this state when we are eating. We want to be in a calm state to promote digestion.
Back to the fast-food example. If you are grabbing your food and eating it ravenously while driving, you are not really paying attention to what you’re eating. You are promoting more of the fight/flight state, and this will make it more difficult to digest and absorb the food you are eating. It is therefore best to prepare your food in a relaxed way, take even just thirty seconds before eating it to feel gratitude for the food, and then pay attention to the food as you eat it. I’m sure that sounds a little hippy-dippy, but its grounded in science.
To summarize this section, digestion has a strong connection to your current state of being. Seeing and smelling food before you eat it, and eating it in a relaxed state, will promote proper digestion. The antithesis, which is more common in our day-to-day lives, will deter digestion.
Timing Eating and Exercise
Additionally, eating too closely to periods of exercise will also deter digestion. For the most part, exercising in a bit of a hungry taste (without food in your belly) is better than exercising with a full belly. And after exercise, waiting until your heart rate comes back down to normal is a good metric for determining how long to wait before eating again. Otherwise, you are not providing the optimal environment for the digestion of food. There are some caveats here, but in general, for a healthy individual performing moderate or even short bursts of intense exercise, this feeding strategy will likely prove most beneficial. In my interview with Dr. D’Agostino, he shared that he wears a FitBit to monitor his heart rate, although any device which measures heart rate can be utilized for this purpose.