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Food As Medicine: Especially During Stress & Uncertainty

Have you ever changed your eating habits during stress? I know I have!

When it comes to food as medicine, ironically it has less to do with food and more to do with the brain. You heard right, the brain!

Where Digestion Starts

Imagine yourself in this scenario: You're standing at your kitchen counter with a few fresh lemons. Take a lemon and slice it in half. The fresh citrus smell fills the air. Take one of your lemon halves and squeeze it into a glass. Smell the fresh lemon juice. Then fill the glass with water. Take a sip of your fresh lemon water. Feel the beverage soaking into your tongue, rehydrating your cells. Ah! Refreshing!

How did that feel? Did you notice any changes in your body?

This is called the cephalic phase of digestion - the part of digestion that starts in the brain. Cephalic phase accounts for 10% of digestion!

Cephalic phase segues nicely into our eating environment too. Think about if you've ever eaten while:


Talking on the Phone


During a Stressful Conversation

When in a hurry

Checking the news

All of these have potential to negatively affect our digestion. Why??

Our Autonomic Nervous System

Our nervous system has two states - sympathetic AKA fight-or- flight and parasympathetic AKA rest and digest. You are probably able to guess which one is optimal for eating time ;)

Our primal version of fight-or-flight goes back to when we were literally being chased by predators. If you're being chased, the last thought you're having is 'gee, I could really go for a burger right now!' Our digestive system TURNS OFF when we are in a fight or flight state. Luckily, in today's day and age, we don't get chased by predators as often, but we do have other stressors that turn on our flight or fight response, like work, traffic, news, relationships, etc.

When we eat during stressful times, it puts a real wreck on digestion. It can lead to upset stomach, bloating, gas, indigestion, and not knowing when we're full.

When we are in a rest-and-digest state, we absorb more nutrients from our food, we digest fully, and we have better signaling for when we are satiated. It's the optimal and only state where we are able to digest. Here are some strategies to help trick our nervous system from fight-or-flight to rest-and-digest:

  • Sitting - this sends a signal to our nervous system that we don't need to run anywhere or flee. Extra bonus points if you can sit for meals at a place that is different from where you work.

  • Turn off electronics - or at least have them out of arm's reach. Toss the phone into another room, close down the laptop, and turn off the TV. These technology tools can often be a source of entertainment but also a source of stress, and either way you spin in they are a source of distraction.

  • 10 deep belly breaths before eating - relax into your belly, take a few grounding breaths, maybe even place your hand on your belly while you breathe. It goes a long way!

  • Give Thank, Acknowledge - if you are religious, say a prayer of thanks before meals. You can also acknowledge and appreciate that people that grew the food, prepare the food, & serve the food. Usually when we're stressed, we're not feeling gratitude in that exact moment. Conjuring up gratitude helps to switch our nervous system over.

  • Smell your food, look at your food, admire its presentation and colors - sink into the cephalic phase of digestion!

  • Have joyful conversation

  • Place your fork down in between bites - eat slowly, finish each bite

  • Avoid multitasking

If you can do 1 or all of these things, you are well on your way to using your food as medicine. The last piece I'll leave you with is perhaps the most important.

Judgement vs non-judgement

When it comes to food, our emotions can be intimately intertwined. We don't have to deplete emotions, but rather, we can release judgement about the food we eat. The words good food and bad food imply judgement. 'I ate like crap this week' implies that you did not nourish yourself in the best way you could given the circumstances of your life in those moments. I like to believe that in times of stress and uncertainty, we are doing the best we can every day.

So instead of "good food" and "bad food", can we use words like, this is a crunchy food, this is a salty food, this food has fiber, this food is associated with a happy memory of mine. All of these words are non-judgmental and send a much more kind and compassionate message to our nervous system about the food we are putting into our bodies.

I love food, and I love taking good care of myself, and sometimes that means pizza and cookies with my loved ones. Sometimes that means juice fasts. And sometimes it means retraining my brain to best care for myself deeply and fully.

If you have questions or want to dive in more, I'd love to help! Please feel free to book a free 15-minute phone call with Dr. Wolbers to dive in more. Stay well!

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