Most nutritional advice focuses on what we eat, and rightfully so. We need eat the right balance of healthy proteins, fats and carbohydrates to nourish our bodies. But if we eat in such a way as to rush and gobble down each meal without much attention to what and how we are eating, much of that nutrition can be lost. In our grab-and-go society we run out the door with a cup of coffee, eat lunch at our desks and have dinner while sitting in from of the television. The old adage, “you are what you eat” has been replaced with “you are what you absorb and what you don’t eliminate”. Poor eating habits can lead to digestive problems and eventually a wide range of health problems.
Proper digestion is essential for good health. While digestion actually begins in the brain, as we begin to think, smell and see food, the real work begins in the mouth. How many of us are guilty of chewing our food so little that we are lucky we don’t choke on it. Slowing down and chewing our food properly is essential for good digestion. The more you chew, the better your food will be broken down prior to entering your stomach. The action of chewing mechanically breaks down very large pieces of food into smaller particles. The result is having food with an increased surface area, an important contributing factor to good digestion.
Our mouths are responsible for not only breaking down food mechanically but also chemically. Saliva contains enzymes that contribute to the chemical process of digestion. Carbohydrate digestion begins with salivary alpha-amylase secreted by glands positioned near the mouth. This alpha-amylase helps break down some of the chemical bonds that connect the simple sugars that comprise starches. Additionally, the first stage of fat digestion also occurs in the mouth with the secretion of the enzyme lingual lipase by glands located at the root of the tongue.
Eating in a hurried many also affects digestion in a negative manner by invoking the sympathetic nervous system, also known as our “flight or fight” response. Blood flow is directed toward essential systems as your body prepares for danger. It increases heart rate, dilates the lungs and increases glucose metabolism. On the contrary, blood is directed away from less essential functions including digestion. This causes digestion to shut down because your central nervous system shuts down blood flow, affects the contractions of your digestive muscles, and decreases secretions needed for digestion.
On the other hand, eating slowly in a calm and relaxed manner, invokes the parasymphatic nervous system. This promotes a “rest and digest” response and enhances digestion. The parasympathetic system allows us to improve our digestion wellness. The parasymphatic nervous system stimulates salivary gland secretion, accelerates peristalsis dilates blood vessels leading to the GI tract helping the digestion of food and indirectly, the absorption of nutrients.