Eating breakfast on the way to work. Powering through emails while eating lunch at a desk. Eating dinner while taking a few more calls.
While all of these may seem like the most efficient use of time, these habits can actually be damaging for long term health and productivity, thanks to biology.
The biological stress response, also known as fight or flight, is what keeps adrenaline pumping when in a stressful situation or when survival is being threatened. Unfortunately, this evolutionary mechanism doesn’t always differentiate between being chased by a bear and reading a stressful email. As a result, humans can get stuck in fight or flight mode for the entire day, day after day. This stress response can be made even worse when adrenalin and cortisol levels are amped up with stimulants like sugar and coffee.
This has a direct impact on digestion, since fight or flight mode causes digestion to shut down, sending energy instead to the arms, legs, and brain in order to think and move quickly.
When in fight or flight mode during mealtime, far less food gets digested than when in the rest and digest mode. It takes more precious energy to process the food, which is why so many people feel so tired after they eat. If the digestive system isn’t turned on, food can turn into a toxic sludge that contributes to fatigue, indigestion, and weight gain.
In the long term, staying in fight or flight mode can also cause adrenal fatigue or chronic fatigue.
To avoid all of this and get the most out of mealtime, it’s imperative to switch into rest and digest mode. Thankfully, it’s fairly easy to activate, but it needs to be done consciously.
This will help to fully digest and process food, deliver much needed nutrients to the cells, and provide stable energy from meal to meal.
Here are 3 tips for reducing stress and making sure rest and digest mode is activated at mealtime:
Set aside a time just for eating with no distractions.
Setting aside time to eat with no distractions is key to getting out of fight or flight mode and allowing the body to shift into rest and digest mode.
Set a timer for 20 minutes and sitting at a table rather than a desk. Don’t have a phone or computer nearby. If this seems impossible, start with a meal where there is more control over scheduling, such as breakfast or dinner. Set a standing calendar appointment so that things don’t get in the way.
While at first it can be difficult not to want to multitask, once this becomes habit and relaxation sets in, it can become a time to look forward to each day, with feelings if increased energy and productivity, instead of wanting to crawl under a desk and take a nap!
Activate the vagus nerve
There in one switch in the body, so-to-speak, that can be used to activate the rest and digest mode, which is the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is connected to the brain and the stomach. When stimulated, it helps to release stomach acid, bile, and starts up an entire cascade of functions that are imperative for digestion.
There are many ways to stimulate the vagus nerve, including singing, humming, gargling, meditating, and doing yoga. The best one to do right before eating is to take deep breaths through the nose. Sit for a few moments and taking a few deep belly breaths through the nose before taking a bite. This will help to activate the rest and digest function.
Truly rest and digest
The moment a meal is finished, many hop up to clear the dishes, go back to answering emails, or skip off to yoga class. However, it’s important to give the body time to continue to digest after the last bite. The recommended amount of time is 5 minutes, when possible, to relax before doing anything that will flip the switch back to fight or flight.
Lastly, the right diet can also have a big impact on the stress response. A constant stream of sugar, carbs, and coffee will cause a further state of perpetual fight or flight. With the right diet, the stress response can be much more easily managed and energy more stable, bringing about greater productivity and a feeling of having it all under control.
About the author:
Steph Jensen is an Eating for Energy Coach who helps high-performers get unhooked from sugar, stabilize energy levels, and supercharge their results.
Steph also presents at companies using a fun, interactive workshop where employees get to enjoy a healthy meal, learn techniques for reducing stress at mealtime and getting unhooked from sugar, all which help improve overall energy, motivation, and creativity throughout the day.