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Eating with Intention for Better Digestion

You’ve likely heard that it’s good to eat in a relaxed environment while slowly savoring each mouthful of food. But is it really that important? Yes, and here’s why.

How each digestive process changes when under stress (sympathetic dominance):

  • Esophagus: Increases strength of contractions and begins spasming, leading to gastroesophageal reflux (GERD) and chest pain.
  • Stomach: Drops from 3 contractions per minute to 1, decreasing the mixing action of food with acidic secretions, resulting in slower and weaker stomach emptying.
  • Small Intestine: Motility slows significantly, which may lead to small intestinal bacterial overgrowth and mucosal damage.
  • Large Intestine: Motility increases in the large intestine when under stress, leading to more frequent bowel movements.
  • Saliva: Secretions decrease when under stress. (Ever have a dry mouth during public speaking?)
  • Gastric Digestion: Protective gastric secretions including bicarbonate, mucus, and phospholipids all decrease while under stress, making occurrence of stress ulcers more likely.
  • Pancreas & Gallbladder: Secretion of hormones including insulin, cholecystokinin, and secretin are either inhibited or reduced, resulting in poor glucose control and less bile and pancreatic enzyme secretion, which are required for proper digestion.

By creating a relaxing environment for meals, we put our bodies in a parasympathetic state, setting ourselves up for proper digestion and avoiding the negative effects from eating under stress that are described above.

Tips for eating in a relaxed, “rest and digest” state:

  • Set aside 20-30 minutes per meal.
  • Sit down for your meals in a quiet space away from distraction.
  • Put away all electronic devices and turn off the TV.
  • Avoid emotional conversations, such as discipline, during meal times.
  • Take a moment to smell your food.
  • Take 2-3 deep diaphragm or belly breaths prior to eating.
  • Express gratitude for your meal.
  • Cut food into bite sized pieces and chew thoroughly, until a liquid consistency, before swallowing.
  • Put down your fork between bites.
  • If you feel nervous about trying new foods and are worried that they might aggravate your symptoms, practice a guided imagery or mantra before meals that reminds your body that what you are taking in is food, and food is meant to nourish, not aggravate, your body.

Remember: creating new habits takes time, so be patient with yourself!

Helpful books and resources:

  • Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food, by Jan Chozen Bays, MD
  • Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD and Elyse Resc, MS, RD
  • Eating Mindfully and Eat, Drink, & be Mindful, by Susan Albers PsyD
  • Meal by Meal: 365 Daily Meditations for Finding Balance Through Mindful Eating, by Donald Altman


Sandberg-Lewis, Steven, ND, DHANP. Functional Gastroenterology: Assessing and Addressing The Causes of Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. Second Edition. Portland: NCNM Press; 2017.