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Tap into your ‘built in’ stress-reducing system

Halloween is just a few short weeks away, and this marks the official kick-off of the 2022 holiday season. For many, just thinking about the holidays can bring about a mix of excitement and overwhelm all at the same time. It’s a time we find ourselves wrapped up in the hustle and bustle of events and nonstop to-dos.

What if we shift our focus this year and make it a priority to slow down, connect with our loved ones, and tap more into our calm, parasympathetic nervous system (just think rest and digest)?

Your nervous system is the ultimate player in your stress response. It has the power to either kick off negative stress responses or to bring in the more beneficial side accompanied by relaxation and a reduced heart rate. The good news is that you can learn to disconnect from your fight or flight response by tapping into your parasympathetic nervous system.

Here’s the big secret about stress versus rest: You can’t be in both a stressful state and a relaxed state. The opposing sides of the nervous system cannot function at the same time. Here’s a simple method to move into the parasympathetic side to reap the many benefits – breathe in deep through your nose and out slowly through your mouth (repeat three times). Yes, it’s that simple.

The problem is that when you eat while stressed, your body moves blood from your digestive organs to your extremities, and the communication between the brain and the stomach takes a nosedive. So, what’s the end result?

If stress is not addressed before you take that first bite, it can start a vicious cycle that can eventually lead to fewer nutrients absorbed, less energy, more craving, annoying digestive discomforts like reflux, heartburn, gas, bloating, constipation and diarrhea – or sometimes even more serious digestive health issues.

This means you need to take the age-old phrase of “you are what you eat” and change it to “you are what you optimally digest.”

Here are a few quick tips to help you move out of stress mode and into optimal digestion:

  • First, scheduling deliberate time in your day (even 15 to 20 minutes) to eat your meal away from the computer, TV and other distractions so you can “rest and digest.”
  • Second, find what helps you stop the stress cycle in your body before mealtime. This can be as easy as taking a 5-minute walk, using slow deep breathing or having a good laugh with a friend or colleague.
  • Finally, make a conscious effort to chew each bite. Digestion begins in your mouth, and not chewing reduces your body’s ability to get the most out of even the healthiest foods.

You may already be focusing on what you’re eating, but this week, start focusing on how you’re eating. Make sure to work on moving into a more relaxed state of mind for mealtimes. This will promote better digestion and allows you to feel better, look better and have more energy to do all the things you love this holiday season.

Fran Sutherlin, RD, MS is a local registered dietitian, specializing in using digestive wellness to prevent or manage chronic disease. She has a master’s degree in nutrition, is a personal health coach, speaker, and owner of Sustainable Nutrition. She can be reached at 444-2122 or fran@fransutherlin.com.