Following on from last week’s blog, where we went into greater detail on the first node of the Functional Medicine Matrix known as Assimilation, this week we’re focusing the microscope in even further, by looking at the very first stage of the digestion process – chewing.
Chewing our food thoroughly is really important – not only does it make it easier to swallow but it also aids digestion and absorption. You probably won’t be overly surprised to learn that there are no teeth in the stomach, so if food is not sufficiently broken down within the mouth, stomach acid and digestive enzymes will struggle to break down the food in the stomach.
Another benefit of chewing our food thoroughly is that it helps with overeating. By giving ourselves time for our mind and body to register the food that’s entering our body, we’re more able to recognise when we have eaten enough.
Eating too quickly usually means that a lot more air is being swallowed which can cause bloating. Undigested food also takes up more space in the stomach which can also lead to more bloating and a gradual slowing down of the entire digestive process.
Our digestive system is intrinsically linked to our emotional state. When we are stressed, our body will divert attention from a digestive to a protective mode causing a ‘fight or flight’ response. This is called into action by our sympathetic nervous system. During this process, blood flow to the muscle increases, pupils dilate, heart rate and respiration are accelerated and perspiration and blood pressure are increased. This is our body’s way of preparing us for danger, helping us get ready to run – and is not at all conducive to efficient digestion. On the other end of the spectrum is the parasympathetic nervous system (also known as the “rest and digest” system) which allows muscles in the body to relax and heart rate to decrease – the perfect state to aid digestion. When we eat slowly, the body is more relaxed and therefore able to digest food more efficiently.
Because these two systems are designed for different purposes, they cannot function at the same time. That’s why continuous stress can often be a major cause of issues within our digestion system. And while there’s little we can do consciously to control these systems, factors such as exercise and stress management can help us limit the effect of these responses.
Below, I’ve included an exercise, designed to promote the parasympathetic nervous system and to aid digestion with some follow up questions so you can take notes about your experience. I would be so thrilled if you’d give it a go and if you feel like sharing, I’d be really interested in finding out all about your experience. I’ve used a raisin as the example food here but you can do this with just about any solid food – as long as you don’t mind the mess!
1) First take the food and hold it between your pointer finger and thumb. Bring your attention to it, as if it were a novel item, imagining that you have never seen one before in your life. Take the time to observe the raisin carefully. Explore every part of it, noticing its shape, colour, surface. Rotate and move the raising between your fingers, explore its texture. Apply a little pressure to notice whether it’s soft or hard. You might close your eyes if that helps you to focus and enhance your sense of touch.
2) Hold the raising under your nose and inhale naturally. With each in-breath, notice any aroma or smell that arises. Bring awareness to any effect in your mouth or stomach. Then bring the raising slowly up to your mouth, noticing how your hand and arm know exactly how and where to position it. As your mind and body gets ready to eat the food, be aware of any salivation in anticipation.
3) Place the food gently in your mouth, without yet chewing. Hold it in your mouth for at least ten seconds, exploring it with your tongue, feeling the sensation of having it there. Notice this pause and how it feels to take some time before eating the raisin.
4) When you are ready, prepare to chew the raisin. Take one or two bites into it and notice what happens, bringing your full attention to its taste and texture as you continue chewing. Take time to chew without swallowing, noticing the taste and texture of the raisin in your mouth and how it may change over time.
5) When you feel ready to swallow the raisin, bring awareness to the sensation so that even this is a conscious experience. Lastly, notice what is left of the raisin as you swallow and it travels down to your stomach.
6) Notice how your body as a whole is feeling after completing this exercise. Now take a few moments to write down your reflections on the following questions:
● How was the experience the same or different from how you normally eat?
● What surprised you about the experience?
● What did you notice with the raisin in terms of sight, touch, smell and taste?
● What thoughts or memories popped up while doing this exercise?
● What is one tip for yourself that you are going to take from this experience to apply to your eating habits in the future?
I hope you found this exercise useful. Of course, not all meals should be eaten using this approach, but this exercise hopefully serves to show how we should all make a conscious effort to slow down and limit distractions while we’re eating – for a more mindful and beneficial digestion experience for our bodies.
Eat at a table and not at a desk where you’re checking emails or in front of the TV. Take this opportunity to spend some valuable time with your family to discuss your day. Between bites, place your fork down – and above all… Try to forget about the game we so often teach our children from an early age: ‘whoever finishes first, wins!’ Written by Andrea Okos