By Coach KB

Somewhere in Russia (okay, it was St. Petersburg) in the late 1800’s you could walk into a lab at the Institute of Experimental Medicine and find Ivan Pavlov with a bell and some dogs. You all know the story. Borne from his experiments was the notion of Classical Conditioning, the foundation of the camp of psychology known as Behaviorism. Okay, cool - now we know that you can train an animal, including humans, to produce a consistent response just by ringing a bell or providing some other consistent stimulus. Neat. (This actually is really freaking cool, but it’s not really the point of my blog, so I’ll leave you to ponder the implications for this in your own lives.)

What I find fascinating about this study beyond the psychological aspects is that there is a physiological response that occurred with the dogs before the ACTUAL stimulus (the food) was even applied. Forget the part about training the response with time and repetition… Before the bell even made its debut, the dogs started salivating just at the THOUGHT of food when they saw their handler and primary feeder. Something secondary but very relevant to Pavlov’s study was the part the brain plays in the experience with food and digestion.

We are taught in school that the digestive system is comprised of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, and the anus. If you took advanced studies you might even know that the liver, gallbladder, and pancreas are also an integral part of the system. But what most of us did not learn is that there is one other vital component of digestion - the brain. There are three phases in digestion: the second and third phases are obvious - the Gastric Phase and the Intestinal Phase. These make sense; they are concrete and well-known. The food goes into your stomach to be broken down and then the food goes into your intestines for the nutrients to be absorbed and you poop the rest out. Got it. But the first phase of digestion begins in the brain. It is called the Cephalic Phase (cephalic meaning of, in, or relating to the head… You have probably all heard of microcephaly in the news recently due to the possible connection with the Zika virus).

The Cephalic Phase of digestion begins when we see, smell, or even just THINK about food or eating. Proper digestion cannot take place unless all three phases are working to their full potential. That is why this first phase is so important; it sets the stage for the other two phases so they can actually physically digest your food. Most famously, thanks to Pavlov and his pups, we know that we can secrete saliva without the presence of food. Saliva plays an important role in the second and third phases of digestion because it lubricates the bolus of food we swallow, it begins the breakdown of carbohydrates, and it even kills some bacteria in food. Additionally, as a result of the Cephalic Phase, the hormone gastrin is released, which stimulates the stomach to produce hydrochloric acid (HCl) and pepsin to break down proteins and a mucous layer to protect the stomach lining from the acid. I won’t bore you with the details of all the other amazing and necessary functions that can occur before you even put food in your mouth, but suffice it to say there are many and they all contribute to healthy digestive functions.

Which leads me to the point (along with a few more boring/exciting facts):
What we eat is very important. SUPER important! But how we eat plays a large role in our health, as well. Our nervous system has two parts - the sympathetic system and the parasympathetic system. The sympathetic functions are for active things we do (up to and including the “fight or flight” description we have all heard about) and the parasympathetic functions cover all the rest… literally! This system is responsible for our “rest and digest” responses. Proper digestion optimally takes place when we are in a parasympathetic state, which is why it is so important that we interact with our food prior to consumption.

Taking time to prepare our meals not only give us a better appreciation for our food and makes it more likely we will prepare nutritious meals, it ensures we are set up to actually be able to break down our food and absorb the nutrients. When we take time to anticipate what we are going to eat and use all of our senses to interact with the texture, taste, and smell of our food before we actually eat the meal we activate the necessary first phase of digestion. When we eat our breakfast in rush-hour on the way to work or pick up take-out and mindlessly shove it in our faces in front of the TV or computer when we get home at night this doesn’t happen. Not only does it not happen, it might do the opposite! - When we are in our sympathetic state we might actually be diverting blood flow away from our digestive organs to put into our arms and legs so we are “ready for action.”

Do you have to spend an hour each night meticulously preparing gourmet meals? No. But a good place to start would to be ask yourself a few questions related to the meals you ate this week:

  1. What was I doing right before I ate?

  2. What was I doing while I was eating?

  3. How long did I give myself to eat?

  4. How was I feeling emotionally during my meal? (stressed, frantic, multi-tasking or relaxed and at ease)

  5. Did I chew each bite thoroughly and really taste my food or did I shovel it down the hatch to get on with my day?

  6. Did I really enjoy my meal or was I on auto-pilot and not paying attention to my food?

The bottom line (pun intended):
There are lots of drugs on the market to help with gas, bloating, diarrhea, indigestion, heartburn, IBS. Do yourself a free and all-natural favor and reflect on these questions and the ideas related to digestion I have provided you above and see if you notice any changes. In additional to physical benefits your mental health and time with friends/family might reap some parasympathetic benefits as well.