Jun. 22. 2018
Written By:
McKel (Hill) Kooienga
McKel Hill Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

McKel Hill Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

Founder of Nutrition Stripped and the Mindful Nutrition Method™

Good digestion starts in your mouth. When you take time to enjoy your meal, you can chew your food and truly taste every spice, herb and texture.

This promotes better meal satisfaction because your body is able to signal to your brain that you’re full and don’t need to consume more food. Chewing your food also allows your body to fully absorb nutrients and turn carbohydrates and fat into fuel. That’s why today, I’m breaking down how your nervous system can affect the way you process food and how you can help your digestive system by practicing a few mindful eating techniques. Plus, check out a quick belly massage you can do post-meal to aid digestion.

What Happens When Stress Affects Digestion

The nervous system consists of two parts: the central and the peripheral. The central nervous system includes your brain and spinal cord. On the other hand, the peripheral nervous system is divided into three subsystems: the autonomic, somatic and enteric systems. The autonomic nervous system controls many of the body’s unconscious functions. Within the autonomic system, there are the parasympathetic and the sympathetic nervous systems. When you’re in a state of stress and your cortisol levels rise, your sympathetic nervous system takes over and stops digestion. All of your energy is mobilized to take a fight or flight response.

Stress can also cause inflammation in the stomach and gut, so you might experience gastrointestinal issues, like diarrhea and constipation. Practicing mindful eating techniques, like sitting down, chewing, and avoiding screen time, helps you reduce stress and avoid emotional eating. It also allows your parasympathetic nervous system to take over. Unlike the sympathetic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system gets your body into “rest and digest” mode.

Your parasympathetic nervous system promotes relaxation and sends signals to the liver, small and large intestines, pancreas, kidneys, and colon. The parasympathetic nervous system also triggers salivation to break down food and contracts muscles so food is able to move from one digestive organ to the next.

How Your Digestive System Works

As I explained earlier, good digestion starts with chewing your food. After chewing, food travels to the esophagus, the long organ in your neck area that connects your mouth to your stomach. Once food hits your stomach, it stays there up to eight hours as digestive enzymes process them and release them into the bloodstream.

Then, your small intestine receives food from your stomach. Digestion truly happens in the small intestine because that’s where the “work” of absorbing nutrients comes in. Before food goes into the large intestine, your liver receives nutrients from your small intestine and secretes bile to digest fat. It also creates chemicals necessary for carrying out bodily functions.

Your liver essentially acts as a filter and removes harmful toxins from your bloodstream. Your pancreas also plays a key role in digestion by producing enzymes that break down protein, carbohydrates and fat. The pancreas creates insulin that metabolizes sugar and releases it into your bloodstream. Then, there’s your gallbladder, which stores bile from your liver to digest fat.

Once nutrients are fully absorbed in the small intestine, food goes into your large intestine (also known as your colon), where it turns into a stool. A stool is mostly food debris or undigested fiber and bacteria. Once your colon becomes full of stool, it releases the stool into the rectum, where it passes through the anus for elimination.

2-Minute Belly Massage for Better Digestion

You can promote better digestion by eating slowly and not wolfing down your food. Take sips of water in between bites to help your body break down the food and allow it to pass through the esophagus to your stomach. But sometimes, your body needs another helping hand. Another way you can help ease digestion is performing a two-minute belly massage. When you’re stressed, your abdominal tissues tend to tense up, which can cause changes in the gut and trigger a fight or flight response that I talked about earlier.

By performing a simple two-minute belly massage before a meal, you can signal to your parasympathetic nervous system that you need to relax and that it’s time to eat. Remember that brain-gut connection I addressed in a previous post? Well, that’s exactly what this is. This belly massage can help you practice breathing and get your body, mind, and gut into “rest and digest” mode. Here’s how to do it:

1. Lie on your back with your knees bent. Place your hands on your belly and massage it in a circular motion with your palms and fingertips.

2. Apply gentle pressure to areas that feel tender or have inflammation. Slowly move from your left to your right side of your abdomen and then along the bottom of your rib cage. Repeat for a few laps around your belly until the sore or tense areas feel more relaxed.

Additional Resources:

Let’s Hear It

What type of mindful eating techniques do you practice to promote better digestion? Do you perform a belly massage before each meal? How do you aid digestion post-meal? Share your tips and tricks with the NS community in the comments below, or post them on Instagram with #nutritionstripped.

xx McKel