You may have heard of Rest and Digest, and be wondering what exactly it means. We have all been told to sit down and slow down when we eat a meal. Why is this important?
We will look at some basic facts about the nervous system and the digestive tract that will shed some light on Rest and Digest. It turns out there is some science behind this common sense advice.
Practicing relaxation at mealtimes can help you to digest your food more comfortably. You will be able to use more of the nutrients in your food. Let’s get started on this simple lifestyle change that can improve your digestion.
Why is it so important to improve your digestion? Gut health affects every system in the body. Read this post to learn more about why gut health matters.
The Somatic and Autonomic Nervous System
There are two parts to the nervous system. The Somatic Nervous System connects with the parts of the body that you control voluntarily. When you swing your arms, walk, turn your head or chew your food the Somatic Nervous System is controlling those muscle movements.
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) controls muscles that act involuntarily. Imagine if you had to consciously control the beating of your heart, the churning of stomach muscles to digest food, or whether to dilate the capillaries in your hands and feet.
All these things run automatically under the control of the Autonomic Nervous System. Electrical charges, hormones and other signals these parts of your body running smoothly behind the scenes.
You may have heard of the enteric nervous system. This is simply the network of sensory and motor neurons that runs along the entire length of the GI tract and controls sensations and muscle movements. The enteric nervous system is a part of the autonomic nervous system, so it runs automatically.
The enteric nervous system can carry out some of its functions independently of the control of the nervous system, which is the brain. In fact, the gut is sometimes called the “second brain.” If you ever feel like your stomach has a mind of its own, you are right.
The gastrointestinal tract is connected to the brain via a large, branching nerve called the vagus nerve. Interestingly, there are more messages that travel from the gut up to the brain than there are traveling in the other direction.
In this post we are focusing on the Autonomic Nervous System, where we find the Rest and Digest state.
The Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous System
Let’s look at the autonomic nervous system more closely. The ANS can slip back and forth between two different states. They are really like different states of alertness for your body.
When the body senses danger it goes into the Sympathetic state, also known as Fight, Flight or Freeze. In this state your body is getting ready to react to a threat.
The Parasympathetic state is what we call Rest and Digest. The body senses that there is no threat, and all is well. Your resources can go into those tasks that maintain and build up the body, like digesting and absorbing nutrients.
How Fight or Flight Affects your Gut
When you are in the sympathetic state your pupils dilate, your heart rate increases and you release glucose into the bloodstream. All these changes get you ready to react quickly to a threat.
However, the sympathetic state turns digestive processes off. You produce less saliva. Muscles in your stomach and intestines slow down in favor of the muscles in your arms and legs. Blood flow to your digestive tract decreases.
Rest and Digest your Food Better
By contrast, when you are in a parasympathetic state, the flow of saliva and bile increases. Blood flow to the GI tract allows the muscles to move food efficiently through your gut.
The increased blood flow provides the energy and nutrients you need in order to produce stomach acid and digestive enzymes. This is the state known as Rest and Digest.
How to Rest and Digest
Now that you know why it is so important to relax when you eat, it should be easy enough to do, right? Maybe not, in the fast-paced and stressful world today. Eating in a peaceful and relaxed state doesn’t just happen. It often takes intentional planning and mindfulness.
Here are some things you can do to remind you to slow down and shift to relaxation before you eat.
Pay attention to where you eat.
Clear away the clutter in the place where you will be eating. Set the table with your favorite dishes and cutlery.
Put something on the table that makes you happy. This could be a vase of flowers, a knick-knack or a photo.
Eat in a place that makes you feel relaxed. If you work from home, maybe your desk is not the best place to eat.
Relax intentionally before a meal.
The act of saying Grace before a meal slows you down and makes you pause before that first bite. It connects you to a higher power and lets you express gratitude. Even if this is not your habit, stop anyway and name something that you are deeply grateful for.
Perhaps you can ring a bell or sound a gong to remind you to intentionally relax.
Take the time to breathe deeply. This is a good time to try a deep breathing exercise. Would you like to learn one or two simple breathing exercises?
Eat in good company.
Social interaction can help you to shift into the parasympathetic state. Make a date to eat meals regularly with someone you love. During the meal, agree to talk about things that make you happy. Or, agree to eat your meal in silence. Smile at the person next to you.
Take five before you return to your day.
After you are finished eating, resist the impulse to jump up and get right back to whatever you were doing. Instead, take five minutes to stay in that state of calm relaxation.
This allows the enteric nervous system, that second brain, to take control and set in motion all the digestive juices and muscle motions that you need to complete your digestion.
What can you do during this time? Continue your conversation. Recite a poem or sing a song. Wiggle your toes and be grateful for your amazing digestive system.
Add your own. What is your favorite way to relax while you eat?
Final Thoughts About Rest and Digest
Your nervous system is divided into two basic parts. The somatic nervous system controls voluntary muscles, while the autonomic nervous system takes care of everything that you do not control. The enteric nervous system is found in the gut, and is a part of the autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system can shift back and forth between two states of alertness. The sympathetic nervous system is Fight, Flight or Freeze. In this state we don’t digest food very well.
The parasympathetic system is Rest and Digest. This is when the digestive system is primed and has all the resources it needs to run properly.
If you pay attention to where and how you eat, you can practice intentional relaxation at mealtimes. These simple lifestyle changes will make a difference in how well you digest your food.
Would you like the awesome feeling of well-being that comes with a healthy digestive system?
Simply Good Digestion is an online program that teaches you simple and easy ways to improve your digestion. You can work through the program at your own pace, and still get group support through the discussion board and chat features.
Just click the “Find out more” button below to get more information and learn how to register for Simply Good Digestion.