It’s a familiar feeling – you just finished a big, delicious meal and now you feel overly full and a little uncomfortable. Your body is working hard to break down and digest all that food you consumed, and it can feel like an arduous process. However, there’s a simple way to help your body along – relaxing your mind. When we relax mentally, it triggers physiological changes that support healthy digestion.
After eating a large meal, blood flow increases to the stomach and intestines to supply the energy needed to digest food. This diversion of blood away from other parts of the body is part of the reason we feel sluggish and sleepy after eating. Mentally relaxing helps counteract this effect. Studies show that practices like meditation, deep breathing exercises, yoga, and gratitude journaling initiate the body’s relaxation response. As the body relaxes, blood circulation improves throughout the entire body, including the digestive organs.
The relaxation response also decreases muscle tension in the stomach and intestines. Digestion relies heavily on the ability of the smooth muscles in your GI tract to contract and move food along. When these muscles are tense, contractions are sporadic and weak, slowing down transit time. Relaxation helps muscles work better together for productive contractions that propel food through the intestines.
Mental relaxation also reduces stress hormone production. Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline can inhibit the release of gastric enzymes needed to break down food particles. The hormones also decrease protective mucus production in the stomach, making the organ more susceptible to excessive acidity burning the delicate lining. Taking time to mentally unwind keeps stress hormone levels down and supports a more balanced digestive process.
The benefits of mind-body relaxation for digestion depend partly on the vagus nerve, which connects the brain to the stomach and intestines. Studies show that relaxation practices stimulate the vagus nerve and increase activity in the parasympathetic nervous system. Known as the ‘rest and digest’ system, the parasympathetic nerves promote digestion by increasing blood flow, improving muscle contractions, and balancing acid secretions.
Here are some easy ways to promote relaxation before or after eating:
- Deep Breathing: Inhale deeply through your nose, allowing your belly to expand. Exhale slowly through your mouth. Repeat for 2-5 minutes.
- Guided Imagery: Picture yourself in a beautiful, serene environment like a beach. Engage all your senses and imagine the sounds, smells and physical sensations.
- Listen to Calm Music: Play soothing, instrumental music and close your eyes. Allow the melody to release tension.
- Try Yoga Poses: Gentle forward folds or supported child’s pose help the body relax. Don’t do intense postures on a full stomach.
- Take a Warm Bath: Allow the warm water to loosen up tight muscles and clear your mind. Add Epsom or Himalayan salt for deeper relaxation.
- Practice Mindfulness: Observe your thoughts non-judgmentally. When stressed about digestion, gently bring your focus back to the present.
- Go for a Stroll: A leisurely walk around the block can stimulate the relaxation response. Don’t push yourself to the point of feeling winded.
- Write in a Gratitude Journal: Reflect on a few things you’re grateful for. Cultivating gratitude promotes positivity and comfort.
The next time you feel that post-meal discomfort, don’t reach for antacids right away. Try relaxing your body and mind first to allow your digestive system to smoothly do its work. Taking a few minutes to unwind with deep breathing, light yoga poses or calming music can make a big difference in how you feel. By eliciting the relaxation response, you support healthy digestion and enjoy your meal more fully.