Nervous System Tug-o-War
When it comes to understanding how our digestion system functions it's really valuable to understand the connection between it and our nervous system. It's easy to think of our digestion system as a 24/7 working system but our different nervous systems have a massive impact on when our digestion system is running and how efficient it is.
The digestive system is connected to the nervous system in several ways through a specialized network called the enteric nervous system (ENS). In addition, it is also connected through the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which includes the sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic (PNS) divisions, and through the central nervous system (CNS), which includes the brain and spinal cord.
Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)
The ANS is the part of our nervous system that controls involuntary functions like heartbeat, digestion, and breathing. It is then divided into two different systems:
Sympathetic System (SNS) This system prepares our body for the “fight or flight” response. It prepares our body by increasing our heart rate, dilating pupils, and slowing down digestion.
Parasympathetic System (PNS) This system prepares our body for the “rest and digest” function. When we are in this state our heart rate is slower, our pupils constrict, and our digestion system is being fully supported and promoted to flourish.
Fight or Flight Response vs. Digestion
When our SNS is activated our ability to digest food is greatly hindered because it prioritizes bodily functions that are critical for immediate survival and suppresses functions that are less necessary to respond to a threat like our digestion system.
Essentially, when our body’s perceive a stressful situation our brain is treating that stressor like it is a Saber Tooth Tiger coming out of the Tundra about to eat our Caveman-self so it’s ONLY goal is to direct all energy and attention to being alert and being able to run away.
We don’t need to be able to digest anything while in that state because why would we ever be eating if we were being attacked?
Normally once we ran away from the threat, our bodies would begin to shift into the PNS, the “rest and digest” system and promote other restorative process.
Unfortunately in today’s day and age most of our stressors come from things like email, phone calls, and the news which do not elicit a physical response which keeps our body in the SNS making it impossible to have a fully functioning digestion system.
Shifting Your Body's Nervous System
The first step in shifting our body from the SNS to the PNS (aka. from the "fight or flight" response to the "rest and digest" response) is to be aware of what is happening around us and to check in with our body to see if we are feeling calm or anxious. If we are feeling anxious, here are a few things we can do before we eat to ensure that we are priming our digestion system:
- Go for a 15-20 minute walk before your meal without your phone
- Slow down with deep intentional breathing for 3-5 minutes
- Stretch your body for a few moments to signal that you are safe
- Engage in a conversation with a loved one - Yes... I'm saying, simply share a conversation before eating because when we socialize it drastically reduces our stress - Especially if we laugh.
There is so much information on our nervous systems as we are just barely scratching the surface, but these are the fundamental learnings that have helped me understand why it's so important to be in a relaxed state before I enjoy a meal and what to implement if I'm not. So before your next meal, take a moment to check in with your body and give it some love and attention... Your digestion system will thank you.