by Dr. Leena Athparia, ND, AAWC
The gut is often referred to as our 'second brain'. The Ayurvedic system of medicine has examined the connection of mind-body for thousands of years and now modern medicine is beginning to understand that the gut makes serotonin - an important neurotransmitter also made in our brain that helps us feel good. So, does what we eat affect our mood or does our mood affect our digestion?
When you are angry or upset - how's your appetite?
When you are happy - how's your appetite?
When you are nervous - how's your appetite?
Everyone has experienced a time when their appetite was instantly affected by a thought, bad news or something someone said to them. There is no doubt a link between your mental state and the quality of your digestion.
In Ayurveda, there is a concept called 'agni' which means fire. This metabolic fire is omnipresent in your body: from your cells, to your mind and your digestive system. An example of this metabolic fire is stomach acid that your body makes to break down food. When you are stressed, the stomach doesn't make as much stomach acid. People who are chronically stressed have hypochlorhydria or lack of hydrochloric acid which leads to a host of other issues such as parasites, yeast and undigested food. Whenever the nervous system gets a jolt, 'agni' immediately dwindles. This happens in every part of your body including your stomach. Just think of what happens when wind (vata) blows your campfire out and you can't cook your hot dogs! This is a rough analogy of what happens in the body as well.
There is a lot of focus on the physical aspect of digestion - digestive enzymes, probiotics, healthy foods - all of which play a very important role in breaking down your food. However, we need to address some of the subtler aspects of digestion and support a balanced nervous system. When you experience stress, your sympathetic nervous system is dominant (your survival response) meaning your body is preparing for fight-or-flight and digestion is not a priority at that moment. IBS is commonly associated with stress leading to abdominal cramping, diarrhea and constipation and it's a common fact that your stomach acid is altered by increased stress levels which has a cascade effect for next stages of digestion. Taking steps to build resilience to stress, support ease of mind are critical aspects to healthy digestion.
Here are a few tips to support digestion from a mind-body perspective:
1. Do a diet diary: track what you ate and any associated symptoms such as digestive upset, gas, acidity and note how you were feeling that day (such as rating your stress levels from 1-10). You can bring it into your ND to help make connections on what factors in your mental-emotional state may be weakening your digestion.
2. Eat in a relaxed environment: when you are in fight-or-flight (sympathetic mode), your body's resources divert away from digestion, and towards your muscles for survival. When you are relaxed, (parasympathetic mode) your body is in a state when digestion is at it's strongest. To support relaxation, minimize talking at meals and focussing on your meal. Keep your phone away, or turn it on silent to minimize distractions. You can play relaxing music or practice mindful eating - bringing awareness to your experience of eating.
3. Have a routine before you eat: say a prayer, a chant, take a few deep breathes or simply close your eyes to give gratitude for the meal you are eating. When you take a minute or two to settle your mind before your eat, this creates a healthy routine to prepare you to eat in a relaxed way. Sit in a comfortable position and avoid eating on the go (walking, in the car). Here's a simple 5 minute yoga practice you can try involving breathing which helps balance your system.
4. Eat food prepared with love and care: many people say their mom (or grandma's) cooking is always the best. Compare that to a take-out meal. Regardless of the recipe, food that is prepared with care, always tastes better! When food is prepared with positive intentions, the food imbibes those qualities. If you are preparing food for your family, try paying attention to what intentions you are putting into your food. When you put your heart into it, everyone will notice it tastes better - and will digest better.
5. Replace food cravings: when you are feeling a certain way (sad, upset, angry, stressed), subconsciously people tend to go for food to feel better. Food cravings are often a sign of a deeper imbalance, rooted in the mind. Instead of looking for food for instant nourishment, work with your practitioner to find other ways to help support and nourish you in a deeper way. This can be through meditation, exercise, healthy food preparation, homeopathics and more. According to Ayurveda, sugar cravings are associated with the feeling of lack of love. Is it a coincidence that sugar intake in modern society has increased dramatically?
With busy lifestyles, it is not always possible to create a perfect atmosphere to eat your food, but as you bring more awareness to your eating habits and as you feel more at ease at meals, you will notice your digestion will also be more at ease. If you are taking probiotics, enzymes and other supplements for digestion but still not noticing enough change, speak with your ND to address subtler aspects of digestion. There are many tools, from herbs to yoga, to help you enjoy your food and digest with a relaxed frame of mind. When you take steps to be mentally at ease in your day, your digestion will thank you for it - and you will feel better!
Dr. Leena Athparia is a Naturopathic doctor & Ayurvedic practitioner at Naturopathic Foundations with a focus on joint health, pain and chronic disease. If you are healthy and looking into preventing disease or learning more about your constitution, Dr. Athparia can help you. Please call the clinic at 905-940-2727 to book an appointment.