Gut insights from the ancients

Some time back, even before I started my integrative medicine training, I discovered Ayurveda.  And what really appealed to me about Ayurveda is so much of it revolves around self-care.  The stuff that our busy American culture doesn’t always think about.

For instance, the lifestyle recommendation I struggle with the most is eating in a calm place, no TV, no deep and meaningful discussions, no tense conversations.  Just friendly interaction, if any, and a calm, unrushed time for eating and digesting.

Don’t know about you, but I have always eaten quickly and then I’m off to the next thing.  I love my food…but that usually means I eat that much more quickly.  

The fascinating thing to me with ancient practices like this one is that while they were based on observation at the time, our current science supports so much of it!  

If you’ve been reading along with me for any period of time, you know I’m a big advocate for cutting as much stress out of our lives as possible.  I don’t recall, though, that we have ever talked about the impact of stress on eating and digestion…and food sensitivities.

So let’s talk this out a bit.  Many of us have heard of the flight or fight response.  Depending on the situation and the person, your body uses its stress hormones to either give you amazing strength and power to fight off a threat or it uses the same conditions to help you get out of the situation.  In either case, it is a survival mechanism.  (Someday we’ll also talk through the other two responses to danger – freeze and fawn.)

Forgive me as I get a little medical nerdy here.  When we’re in that fight or flight, medical physiology says we’re using our sympathetic nervous system (SNS).  When we’re relaxed and happy, that’s the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).  (If the SNS is known by “fight or flight”, the PNS is known by “rest and digest”!)

And that’s the big thing – digestion.  When we’re running around fighting virtual fires all day, we stay in fight or flight using our SNS.  If we’re running from or fighting danger, our body doesn’t care about  digesting that meal we just ate – we’re running for our lives!  That food sits there.  Digestion is impaired.  Food isn’t broken down the way it was intended and then there are consequences – bloating, indigestion, decreased appetite, nausea, etc.  And how could there not be a direct impact on our gut microbiome?

And then add in the fact that our stress hormones directly impact our microbiome.  Every time we have a massive stress response – fight or flight – our gut experiences that same stress and the environment changes which impacts all of those bacterial helpers in our gut.

Our gut is challenged on multiple fronts when we are dealing with chronic stress.

It’s a concept that has been understood for decades (although inquiring minds like mine always ask “why” which is where the science comes in).  In Ayurveda, the oldest healing tradition in the world, the recommendation is to eat when you’re calm, not highly emotional.  And to enjoy friendly conversation during a meal.  Not the nightly news.  And now we know why.

Sixty-Second Self-Care Tip...

This is a planning question for you – what would you need to do to change your mealtime environment into a calm, pleasant experience?  

The best ideas will be your own, but here are a few:

  • Hide or turn off the mobile phone while you eat
  • No TV while you eat
  • If your workplace or home are stressful, find a way to spend one mealtime daily by yourself.  Even if it means sitting in your car!
  • Ask loved ones to try an experiment with you – center your conversation around what went well during your day as you share a meal together.

If part of the stress at mealtimes is figuring out safe foods to use, get your copy of my free download, Quick Guide to Reading Labels for Food Allergies and Sensitivities.  Just CLICK HERE!


60-second self-care, Ayurveda, fight or flight, food sensitivities, microbiome, stress

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