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Mind-full eating and functional digestion

Updated: Nov 3, 2018

“You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf” Jon Kabat-Zinn

The Workings of Digestion

The gastrointestinal system works through employing a combination of mechanical, biochemical, and neurological components. It breaks down the food we eat and utilizes its macro- and micronutrients for a multitude of processes within the body. From top to tail the gastrointestinal tract begins at the mouth where mastication, also known as chewing, takes place – this is mechanical digestion - and ends just after the colon where the last of certain nutrients can be absorbed. In between these ends the esophagus, stomach and small intestine (5-6 m in length) break down our food through the use of enzyme and acid-containing fluids (biochemical digestion), movement of muscles, also known as ‘peristalsis’, and even recombine some of these chemicals and nutrients for absorption across the gastrointestinal tract layers into the bloodstream (Hechtman 2012).

The Nervous System and Digestion

In order for digestion to occur ample blood and nerve supply must reach the digestive organs. When we are stressed what is known as the sympathetic nervous system, commonly called the ‘fight or flight’ response becomes activated (Hechtman 2012). In sympathetic activation blood is diverted away from digestive organs and to areas such as the head and limbs. Although it enables quick decision-making, acute eyesight, and sudden bursts of physical energy (useful in a stressful situation like running away from or combating a threat) it inhibits digestion. Alternatively the parasympathetic nervous system acts like a brake to our nerves and is often called the ‘rest and digest’ response. A calm nervous system increases blood flow toward the digestive organs enabling relaxation of gastrointestinal tract muscles for correct use. It also allows gland activation for saliva production, enzyme and bile release from the gallbladder while also slowing heart rate (Hechtman 2012). Ultimately, a relaxed nervous system enables healthy digestion and nutrient absorption.

If we are trying to consume our food and breakdown its many components in times of stress or simply lack of relaxation the normal digestive processes are not only hindered but may also become dysfunctional. The automatic movement of our intestines (peristalsis) can become over- or underactive causing changes in bowel habits. It can also mean that saliva, hydrochloric acid (stomach acid), bile (for fat breakdown), and enzymes are not properly released. Nutrients can remain bound together and unable to be converted into bioavailable (useable) forms. Stress can cause incorrect hydrochloric acid function can result in undigested food and acids moving back up into the esophagus causing a common symptom of stress and indigestion – reflux. Additionally, food left undigested can cause bloating, pain and discomfort, and flatulence (Hechtman 2012). Balance in gut bacteria will also be affected, as food and chemicals are moving through the system at abnormal rates and amounts. Dysfunctional digestion may lead to nutrient deficiencies and unwanted symptoms.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness refers to the self-regulation of attention to one’s experiences in the present moment with curiosity, openness and acceptance” (Bishop, 2004).

Keeping up with family, work, and personal commitments while balancing a lifestyle with down time and hobbies, all the while remembering where you’ve put your keys can at times be overwhelming. In fact, we don't need a diagnosis to feel as though we need a little assistance with what we call 'keeping up' with the normal stressors of life. Fortunately, perspective and that lovely thing we call neuroplasticity are gifts that mindfulness are known to provide us. Thanks to contemporary research we now know that even small amounts of regular mindfulness practice (e.g. mindful eating) have been linked to positive emotions and awareness of thoughts and behaviours (Gotink, Meijboom, Vernooij, Smits, & Hunink, 2016). Mindfulness is now strongly backed by scientific evidence and has been studied in clinical and home-practice settings to understand its positive effects on the brain, behavior, and a range of aspects of mental health including behaviors associated with emotional and reactive eating (Bush, Rossy, Mintz, & Schopp, 2014). Mindfulness meditation can lead to a greater sense of self-compassion and wellbeing helping to gain control of cravings and automatic behaviors such as binge-eating (Bush et al., 2014). We may call these unhealthy behaviours mind-less eating.

How Do I Eat Mindfully?

Mindfulness is about using your senses to experience. It is the non-judgemental holding of attention in the present moment, observing whatever happens to be there. Mindfulness is not about stopping or restricting thoughts. Eating mindfully means your focus is on the activity of eating and all the ways you can experience this activity e.g. taste, smell, texture, sound, emotion.

· Drop in to the present moment. From the moment you sit down to eat allow your field of awareness to include all that you are experiencing in your mouth and through your body.

· Notice the physical sensations of eating. What does it feel like to chew the food? Notice the tongue in the mouth, sounds, temperature, textures and flavors that come with eating your food.

· Notice thoughts. What thoughts come into your awareness as you eat? Did the thought ‘I don’t like this flavor’ run through your mind? You might be surprised at how many people don’t actually like the food they have been habitually eating for many years.

· Notice emotions. Can you sense emotions as you are eating? Are certain thoughts coupled with or followed by certain emotions?

· Skip the Screen. Eat at least one meal a day without simultaneously looking at your phone or television.

· Activate the ‘rest and digest’ system. Before sitting down to eat, take three deep breaths that completely fill the lungs. Notice and sense your breath for the full duration of the inhalation and the full duration of the exhalation. 'Activate' the parasympathetic nervous system, the relaxing side of our nervous system.


Bishop, S. R. (2004). Mindfulness : A Proposed Operational Definition Mindfulness : A Proposed Operational Definition.

Bush, H. E., Rossy, L., Mintz, L. B., & Schopp, L. (2014). Eat for life: Awork site feasibility study of a novel mindfulness-based intuitive eating intervention. American Journal of Health Promotion, 28(6), 380–388.

Gotink, R. A., Meijboom, R., Vernooij, M. W., Smits, M., & Hunink, M. G. M. (2016). review Good info for presentation - use basic brain map to illustrate. Brain and Cognition, 108, 32–41.

Hechtman, L. (2012). Clinical Naturopathic Medicine. (S. Pickering, S. Sullivan, J. Gorman, & H. Stewart- Jones, Eds.) (1st ed.). Chatswood: Elsevier.

Tang, Y.-Y., Hölzel, B. K., & Posner, M. I. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 16, 213. Retrieved from


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