It’s summer! Summer means different things to different people. But for many, summer brings bar-b-ques, family events, and travel. Summer can be fun and exciting. But if you’re dealing with a digestive issue like IBS, these events can be a challenge. Irregular schedules, tables of food you wouldn’t normally eat, trying to stick to your therapeutic or low FODMAP diet while you’re away from home — summer does have its challenges.
You know you feel better when you stick to the foods that are gentlest on your digestion. But that’s not always possible. And honestly, sometimes a special occasion warrants eating something you normally wouldn’t. But that doesn’t mean you need to throw in the towel and be a victim of your symptoms. There are things you can do to reduce your IBS symptoms that don’t involve food.
So for the next few weeks, we’re going to focus on some of the non-food strategies and techniques you can explore that may help your symptoms even if you’re not sticking perfectly to your food plan. Think of it as IBS self care.
This week we’re going to talk about how you can improve your digestion in real time with mindful eating.
The short answer — paying attention. Most people don’t pay that much attention to their food while they eat. They work, drive, read, watch TV, all while shoveling in the food. In our multi-tasking, hustle culture, many people don’t feel like they have the time to sit down and focus on every meal.
Mindful eating is the practice of fully experiencing your food — not just the taste. Your food also has texture, temperature, and flavor nuances you may not notice when you’re distracted. Mindful eating also gives you a chance to tune into your body while you eat.
IBS is a digestive disorder. So anything you can do to help your digestion can make an impact. And yes, mindful eating can definitely help your digestion.
Your nervous system has two basic modes: fight or flight (aka sympathetic), and rest and digest (parasympathetic). When your sympathetic nervous system is activated, your body is preparing to respond to danger. And if you’re in danger, digestion just isn’t a priority. Running away from the bear is what’s important in the moment. So your body routes energy away from non-urgent functions like digestion and healing to free up energy for you to run or fight.
But of course, you probably aren’t doing a lot of bear-dodging these days. Unfortunately, your body can’t really tell the difference between stress from an impending bear attack and watching the ever-so-depressing and scary nightly news.
So even if you’re sitting in your living room, your body can respond like you’re in mortal danger. And that means deprioritizing your digestion.
But when you employ mindful eating, you can ease your nervous system back into parasympathetic mode where your body can fully focus on making sure your food gets properly digested. And that can help reduce your IBS symptoms.
Generally, you pay attention to your food and how you feel. Mindful eating starts before you put even one bite into your mouth. So let’s talk about how to get off on the right foot with your mindful meal. Before you sit down to eat (yes, I said sit down), ask yourself a few questions:
Your hunger is more like a gas gauge than a light switch. Hunger falls on a spectrum of sorts. You can be famished, or just a little hungry. You can be full or stuffed. Before you start eating, take notice of how hungry you are.
A word of caution here… we have all spent our lives steeped in diet culture — a culture that attaches a moral value to hunger and fullness. It’s time to start letting this go. If you pay attention to your hunger and feel guilt or shame for any reason, that’s diet culture talking.
Paying attention to your hunger or fullness has the same moral weight as paying attention to how hot or cold your body feels. If you’re cold, you put on a sweater. If you’re hungry, you eat. Sometimes you wear the little black dress simply because you want to — even when you know you’re going to be cold. And in the same vein, it’s okay to eat when you’re not hungry sometimes. We all do it. It’s part of being human.
But when you take the time to notice how hungry you are before you start eating, it can help you tune into how your body feels. And it can inform your choice of how much, or even if, you’re going to eat in the moment.
Stress and digestion do not go well together. It’s really hard to get into rest and digest mode if you’re feeling stressed or upset. So before you eat, notice how you’re feeling.
And if you’re not relaxed and calm, take a moment. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Think about something pleasant. If that doesn’t help, you can even go outside to get a breath of fresh air or let the sunshine warm your face.
Calming down and getting into a relaxed state will open up the entire process of digestion and get things off to a good start. If you eat stressed, your food is going to move through the digestive process without getting fully broken down. And that can cause problems down the line, including gas, bloating, pain, diarrhea, or constipation.
Before you dive in, take notice of the food on your plate. How does it look? Notice the colors and textures. How does it smell? Maybe there’s one predominant smell, or maybe there are several aromas melding together.
Taking a minute or two to notice and even appreciate your meal can get your digestion off to a good start. You may notice that your mouth starts to water when you pay attention to your food. This is a good thing. That’s the beginning of the process of digestion — even before the food hits your mouth. Your saliva contains enzymes that will start the process of chemical digestion. And when the breakdown of food starts in your mouth, it will make the whole digestive process run smoother.
And yes, you do all this before you take your first bite.
Nope. Paying attention to your food before you start eating is an important step — one that many people skip. So I did want to emphasize it. But mindful eating is a practice that encompasses the whole meal.
Most people think of digestion as what happens in the stomach. But what happens in your mouth is really important. Chewing gets the process of digestion started. Your teeth tear the food into tiny pieces — mechanical digestion. And the aforementioned salivary enzymes start breaking the food down — chemical digestion.
Chewing really does matter. The more you can prepare your food for your stomach, the easier the rest of your digestive process will go. So chew… a lot. Your food should be more liquid than solid by the time you swallow.
Most of us eat so fast that fullness flies by unnoticed between bites. But when you’re eating mindfully, you have the opportunity to pay attention to how you feel. And over time, you’ll figure out just how full is comfortable for you.
We all overeat from time to time. But eating past fullness doesn’t do your digestion any favors. Again, it’s not a moral issue. But you may find that stopping at a certain point of fullness helps you feel better overall.
If you need help with your IBS or other stomach issues, reach out. I have some options for you.
If you’re looking for a personalized approach, this is the way to go. We’ll look at your specific symptoms, have lab testing done if needed, and formulate a plan that is customized just for you. If you’d like to find out more, you can book your 15-minute free strategy session here.
If you need some extra tools to help you navigate your IBS, I’ve got something for you. The IBS Resource Guide is a free resource that walks you through my favorite tools for managing IBS. You’ll learn about apps, supplements, and packaged foods that can make the difference.
If you’re looking for some community support, I’ve got an option for you too. Sometimes you need to chat with other people who understand what you’re going through. Or you need a quick tip or an answer to a burning question. That’s where community comes in. If this is what you’re looking for, I invite you to join my free Facebook community.