Monday, September 24, 2012

Five Fixes for Untying the Knots of a “Nervous” Stomach

I’ve just come out of a several weeks season of feeling overwhelmed—too many tasks and deadlines, a drum beat of personal demands, lots of waking up at 2:37 am, an irregular and fast-paced schedule,and underneath it all a churning and persistent anxiousness. The whole thing was “gut wrenching.”

And I mean this in a literal way. My stomach didn’t like it. Ayurveda—and new research—help explain exactly why this is. The gut, which includes the esophagus, stomach, and intestines, is often referred to as our second or “little” brain, exerting control over our moods and appetite. That tossing and turning in your stomach—it’s trying to tell you something.

This second brain does the work of digesting food, breaking it down and providing nutrients to the body’s seven vital tissues, or “dhatus” in Ayurveda, allowing for nourishment and growth. The neurons lining the digestive system also have the task of staying in communication with your brain. This process is accomplished via the vagus nerve, which is the primary conduit between the brain and the gut. And the communication between the two goes both ways—the gut giving information or orders to the brain and vice versa.

The Wall Street Journal reported on a variety of research (“A Gut Check for Many Ailments that shows “problems in the gut may cause problems in the brain, just as a mental ailment, such as anxiety, can upset the stomach.” And hormones and neurotransmitters in the gut also interact with the lungs, heart, and other organs.

So, if we’re anxious or in distress or fearful or experiencing any number mental stresses, it’s going to affect our digestion, our appetite, our ability to feel hunger or fullness, and even how, when, and what we eat. These in turn impact our weight, sleep, mood, energy level, metabolism, and ability to fight off colds and other illnesses.

To help improve digestion and our mental state, Ayurveda offers simple guidance: 

  • Taste and chew your food. This sounds pretty basic, but when anxious, we often forget to chew, swallowing food practically whole. According to Ayurveda, the first stage of digestion starts in the mouth, where taste and chewing stimulate the production of saliva and signal to the small intestines and stomach to begin digestion. The next six stages of digestion are associated with the six tastes (sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent). While you may be left at the table, Ayurveda recommends chewing your food until it’s liquid. Whatever you do, eat a variety of “tastes” to create satisfaction, and chew and savor your food
  • Slow down. Eating too fast or gobbling down food hovering over the sink, in the car, or on the run overloads the system and causes indigestion. Fast eating also tends to increase swallowing more air, which can produce gas. Eating at a slowed-down pace allows time for the gut and brain to communicate and trigger satisfaction or fullness. It takes about 20 minutes for food to get from the stomach to the ileum, which releases the amino acid Peptide YY (PYY) that signals or sends the message to the brain, "I'm full." 
  • Eat warm, moist foods. When you’re under stress or occupied with worry or fear, warm, moist, cooked foods are easier to digest. This includes foods like soups, warm oatmeal with cinnamon and almonds, rice and stir-fried vegetables, and ginger tea or warm water with lemon. And avoid drinking ice water with meals. Ayurvedic practitioner Dr. Claudia Welch, author of Balance Your Hormones, Balance Your Life, offers good advice for when you’re under stress: “The more complicated your physical, emotional, or spiritual life, the simpler your diet should be."
  • Avoid eating when you feel anxious. Again, this sounds obvious, but sometimes the first thing we want to do when under stress is eat. So, while not easy, take a pause before you reach for food. Create an eating experience that is separate from any intense emotional events or feelings. Why? Stress weakens the digestive fire or agni, and can interfere with production of enzymes needed for digestion. Eat in a calm environment—outside in nature can be especially soothing. Turn off the TV or move away from the computer or smart phone.
  • When you eat, eat. Avoid multi-tasking while eating. Mindful or intentional eating will encourage nourishment rather than a grasping for comfort or distraction. Ayurveda suggests eating your biggest meal at midday when the digestive fire is strongest—in sync with the sun. And try not to eat anything 2-3 hours before bed for better sleep. The takeaway—make eating a fully present experience.
After the past few months, these Ayurvedic tips are mostly a reminder for me, but if any of it strikes a chord for you, here's to happy and unhurried eating.
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