Jolene Hart, CHC, is a health coach certified by the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and founder of the pioneering beauty coaching practice Beauty Is Wellness. She is a former magazine beauty editor and the best-selling author of five wellness books, including the Eat Pretty (igniting the wellness-is-beauty phenomenon) and her latest, Well-Rested Every Day.
When it comes to food, the saying ‘you are what you eat’ is only half the story. An even better assessment? You are what you digest. And for one reason or another, digestive capacity is an area where many of us fall short.
While it might be the new normal to pop enzymes, bitter herbs, probiotics, or hydrochloric acid to help the digestive process, we still tend to gloss over a key opportunity to optimize digestion from within each time we eat. This digestive power-up arises during the so-called cephalic phase of digestion, the anticipatory moments when you’re getting hungry, thinking about food, and tasting your first bite—but before you swallow.
The Power Of A Parasympathetic Pause Before Each Meal
During the cephalic phase of digestion, the body produces 20% of the stomach acid and 30% of the pancreatic enzymes needed for optimal digestion. Food has yet to reach your stomach, but your mind and body are syncing up in preparation for the digestive load ahead. Powering up your digestive capacity during this phase requires that your body and mind switch over to a restful state—or at least a temporary slowdown—since the cephalic phase is initiated by the autonomic nervous system, via the vagus nerve.
So often our busy lives and rushed habits get in the way. Eating while distracted (phone in hand), under stress, or rushed diminishes the benefits of the cephalic phase. But it’s incredibly easy to reverse that at your next meal— embrace rest. Before you take your first bite, pause to trigger your body’s parasympathetic, rest-and-digest mode. I call this pre-meal ritual the parasympathetic pause. Practicing it regularly can improve your digestion and nutrient assimilation, increasing your food’s ability to support your energy and overall health.
You can pick your favorite of a dozen or more ways to do this:
+ Try taking a few deep breaths (draw out your exhale longer than your inhale to trigger a calming response through the vagus nerve).
+ Try rooting yourself in the present moment with a prolonged pause, a moment of gratitude, or a prayer.
+ Try activating your senses relative to the food you’re about to eat (ask yourself: what do you see, smell, and crave on the plate in front of you?).
When the parasympathetic pause becomes a habit, you may also find that you’re better connected to your hunger and fullness signals. Studies suggest that the body’s cephalic phase responses do far more than prepare us to digest, absorb, and metabolize optimally—they’re also involved in our appetite and our satiety. Both ghrelin (the hunger hormone) and leptin (the fullness hormone) are part of the cephalic phase. If you tend to over- or under-eat, especially as an emotional response, a parasympathetic pause could transform your eating experience. And for every one of us, it’s about better utilizing the food we eat, while enjoying the present moment and the gift of food.
For more ways to transform your wellbeing with rest, pick up a copy of Well-Rested Every Day.
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