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By Kerry Wangen, MD, PhD
“Practicing mindfulness when eating can improve digestion, increase awareness of how different foods affect you, lower your stress level, and it may help you to maintain a healthy weight.”
What if there was a simple way to improve your gut health, you could start doing it today, your mind has the basic skills to begin, and this practice could also reduce your daily stress? Would you be willing to try it?
Mindful eating is a powerful tool that helps you pay more attention to what is going on in your mind and body. Practicing mindfulness when eating can improve digestion, increase awareness of how different foods affect you, lower your stress level, and it may help you to maintain a healthy weight. Anyone can learn mindfulness. You can improve with practice, even if your mind feels untamed, restless, unfocused, or you’ve been unable to do meditation before.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer of meditation practice in the U.S., offers this definition, “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” We can use this moment-to-moment attention to follow our experience of eating, and the thoughts and sensations which arise. We learn to follow our body sensations including awareness of taste, smell, sight, sounds of chewing, and the texture of food.
“Eating mindfully can teach us which foods help us feel our best, when we are full, and which foods that may cause unpleasant symptoms…”
Eating mindfully can teach us which foods help us feel our best, when we are full, foods that may cause unpleasant symptoms, and much more. Through this practice of mindfulness, we also learn to bring more awareness to other parts of our daily life, and to be more present with what is happening in each moment, rather than lost in our minds with disconnection, distraction, or stress.
There are physical, emotional, and psychological factors that influence our eating. Physical factors such as hunger help us to survive, but often we eat for other reasons, such as a specific time of day, a social gathering, boredom, anxiety, or a desire to enjoy a certain food or an experience that involves food. Mindful eating illuminates the process of eating, and this helps us to pay attention to our choices and how they are impacting our body and mind.
“Mindful eating helps us slow down and be more aware.”
This can improve digestive function by shifting the nervous system to a more relaxed mode, with improved release of gut hormones and enzymes to enhance digestion and help signal when we’ve had enough to eat. We also start to notice more physical sensation such as fullness or abdominal discomfort. Our psychological awareness is enhanced to experience the emotions present, our thoughts about the food, and the experience of eating. The physical and psychological awareness allows us to make positive changes to improve our gut and mind health.
There is good science to back up the benefits of mindfulness on gut health. Bruce Naliboff, PhD reported that a mindfulness training developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, was associated with “robust improvements in GI symptoms and associated problems,” in individuals with IBS.
Christine Cherpak concluded in her review of mindful eating studies, “…mindful eating offers a scientifically proven, effective way to help regulate the stress response for optimal digestive function, which is the cornerstone of wellness and survival.”
How can your practice of mindfulness impact gut health? Let’s turn to the expert in gut health, Dr. Emeran Mayer, and some groundbreaking early findings on the link between life stress and gastrointestinal disorders.
Stress sets off a cascade of effects that cause problems in digestive function. For example, “Certain stressful life events have been associated with the onset or symptom exacerbation in some of the most common chronic disorders of the digestive system…”. “Early life stress in the form of abuse plays a major role in the susceptibility of individuals to develop functional [gastrointestinal disorders] as well as IBD later in life.” Trauma in adult life is also an important risk factor of gut disorders.
In a Nature Reviews Neuroscience article, Dr. Mayer discusses the communication between the gut and the brain, and tells us that there is a steady stream of information flowing back and forth, “…that not only ensures the proper maintenance of gastrointestinal homeostasis and digestion, but is likely to have multiple effects on affect, motivation and higher cognitive functions, including intuitive decision making. Moreover, disturbances of this system have been implicated in a wide range of disorders, including functional and inflammatory gastrointestinal disorders, obesity and eating disorders.”
Since the brain and the gut are in constant communication, and mindfulness, including mindful eating, has been found to regulate the stress response and improve digestion, would you be willing to give mindful eating a try? Here’s how you can implement it into your daily life.
“Putting mindful eating into practice…”
Let’s start with a mindful eating practice you can do on your own. It is best to be in a quiet space where you won’t be disturbed for 5-10 minutes. Take a grape, a raisin, or any other piece of fruit and set it near you. Sit in a relaxed posture and close your eyes if that is comfortable. Notice the contact between your body and the chair, and your feet on the floor. Notice your breath in and out a few times, deepen the inhalations a little bit and on each exhale just imagine letting go of any tension or stress, and being fully present right where you are for this exercise. Open your eyes and pick up the piece of fruit and look at it closely. Notice the color, shape, texture and feel in your fingers. Take a moment to see if it has a smell. Now close your eyes. Notice what is happening in your mouth, is there saliva forming? Place the fruit in your mouth, but don’t bite it yet. Use your tongue to move the fruit around, notice any flavor and the texture of the fruit. Then bite the fruit once and note any changes in your mouth. Now start to chew and do this at least 15 times before you swallow. Notice any thoughts or feelings arising. When you are ready to swallow follow the sensation in your throat until you can’t feel it anymore. Sit for a couple minutes just noticing what is going on in your body and in your mind. How is this different than your usual way of eating?
If you want to continue to practice mindful eating, I recommend starting with just 5 minutes at the start of your meal. A shorter time will be easier to maintain your focus. You can increase the length of time as you notice your attention is able to stay with the experience of eating. It’s important to know that the mind will wander again and again in mindfulness practice. This is normal, especially when you first start practicing mindfulness. Your task is to gently bring your attention back to the sensations of eating, your body, and just noticing what is passing through the mind. It is very similar to how you would try to build a muscle in the body, one repetition at a time, day-after-day before seeing results. We have to build the “mind muscle” of attention to our present moment experience of sight, sound, taste, touch, smell and the thoughts arising.
“What happens if uncomfortable emotions or thoughts arise when you are practicing mindful eating?”
If you have a history of gut issues and/or distress in the mind, it is possible to run into some discomfort. You can learn to work through these issues by bringing compassion to your experience right in the moment you are feeling it, and this can help soften and release the difficult emotions and thoughts. There is a mindfulness technique called RAIN, to practice compassion for yourself and your experience that works well with mindful eating challenges. This technique helps to learn to Recognize what is happening, Allow the experience to be there, Investigate with care, and Nurture with self-compassion. See this link for further instructions by Tara Brach.
There are also specific types of mindfulness-based therapies, as well as training courses to teach mindfulness which include a mindful eating component. These therapies and classes have professional support to help you with any emotional challenges or difficulties in doing the practice on your own. You could also find a mental health professional skilled in mindfulness to guide you.
Further resources to get you started on a practice of mindful eating include my favorite book on the topic, “Mindful Eating” by Jan Chozen Bays, MD. She is a pediatrician and a meditation teacher who has been teaching mindful eating for more than 30 years. There is also the Positive Psychology website with a section on mindful eating practice with 58 tips for mindful eating that offers many good ideas to help on your journey of eating mindfully.
Kerry Wangen, MD, PhD is a psychiatrist who focuses on the mind-body connections for optimal mental health. She is board certified in psychiatry and has a telehealth practice serving people in California. She has been practicing meditation since her teens.