Have you ever wondered what determines your energy swings throughout the day? Our bodies do not and cannot stay in one gear all the time. While it is somewhat simplified, your has two primary states – and it wouldn’t be an oversimplification to call them yin and yang. The nervous system is sort of a transmission system for the body, and determines whether you will be in sympathetic or parasympathetic p. To put it simply, the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for all yang energy in the body – reaction to stress, physical movement, mental acuity, all are channelled through the sympathetic. This is the gear we want to be in when we exercise, when we focus on mental tasks – such as me writing this article – when we engage in sexual activity, more broadly – when we express ourselves. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the body’s yin energy. It is restorative, digestive, and receptive. You cannot actively be parasympathetic aside from one activity, meditation, and even then you might find your mind naturally arriving in a sympathetic state. Just because digesting is a trigger of parasympathetic hormones and processes does not mean that putting food in your mouth will start this response. So understanding this, here’s some tips to make sure that your meals are maximally restorative, and best digested.
- Calm down. I don’t care how hungry you are, food is nearly guaranteed to us here in the first world, your muscles will not disappear, your stomach will not eat itself. If something else is stressing you out, try taking a brisk stroll before sitting down to eat.
- Move more. Aside from sitting to eat, and resting to digest, we are meant to be bodies in motion, more hours out of the day than not. Moving more will increase your daily caloric expenditure, improve your hormonal profile, and trigger a greater restorative response from food. You’ve gotta spend some time expressing yourself, burning energy, in order to create a demand for restoration.
- Stay hydrated. Both movement and a lack of movement, in and around meals, demands more water. Exercise, aerobic and anaerobic, disturbs homeostasis, and water is the only thing which can wash you back to baseline. Things which claim to alkalize your digestive system or your cells will never compare to the healing properties of water, it’s the solvent of the whole planet.
- Sit down. Sitting allows more blood to return to the abdomen and relaxes the muscles of the low back, which are primary signallers of stress response. It is difficult to enter a parasympathetic state while your muscles are still working against gravity.
- Breathe deeply, and exhale your stress. Putting your conscious thought behind nothing but breathing has been well studied to promote restfulness, lower all markers of stress, and in short, trigger the parasympathetic. Deep breathing before a meal will help stimulate the contraction of smooth muscle in the intestines, clearing the way to absorb more nutrients.
- Chew your food. This one shouldn’t require much explanation – your stomach doesn’t have teeth! Digestion begins in the mouth with enzymes released in your saliva.
- Don’t drink anything! Drinking stimulates gastric emptying, and blood, along with water in your body, is pulled away from the digestive system – think of it as a flushing signal. Drinking water with a meal or while food remains in your stomach cuts short the time your stomach needs to break down food into workable pieces for the small intestine to absorb. With food in your stomach, you want to maximize abdominal blood flow and minimize muscular exertion – think conserving energy. Make sure you give your stomach at least 15 minutes after the last bite before you start sipping anything.
- Watch out for coffee. Coffee is really amazing stuff, and the only pre-workout I’ll ever use. That being said, it has the potential to absolutely wreak havoc on your digestive system. Caffeine is a stimulant, and stimulants stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, draw blood away from the digestive system, and put tension in the muscles of the low back and legs. Bottom line – drink coffee on an empty stomach first thing in the morning, or with small quantities of the lightest foods – think light vegan eating with coffee. Fresh fruit, honey, or coconut oil mixed right into your java are all acceptable, but of course add calories which will need to be burnt before you start mining those fat stores. Is it ok to drink coffee after a meal? Yes, but wait 3 hours at least.
- Eat significant meals. Nobody lost weight eating like a bird. The metabolism slows to a crawl and the body starts turning muscle protein into vital organ tissue. When you do sit down to eat, make sure you’re getting at least a third of your daily protein, along with some carbohydrates or fat. All three together do have some drawbacks, but nothing significant. You’re eating now with an intent to rest and repair, make sure you’re supplying a good portion of necessary materials to fuel this recovery.
- Always stop before you feel full. You don’t want a meal to be so large that it expands your stomach so much that it puts pressure on the other internal organs. Also, you only really have so much stomach acid, meaning there is a maximum amount of food your stomach can actually break down and make available at any given time. Lunch is indisputably when will be able to digest the most.
Keeping all of this in mind, understand that eating might take more time than you previously allowed, and so I recommend you plan time for eating into your days. As stressful and overfilled our modern lifestyle tends to be, eating should be a break, enjoy it!