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Ep.2 Mindful Eating for IBS – How to eat
25 May, 2023

Episode Intro

When I started as a nutritionist I often spent time thinking about complex nutrition interventions, and enjoyed learning and then trying to apply nutrition science. Now over 6 years later I can see some of the most simple changes are the most effective when it comes to dealing with my client’s IBS. What if HOW you eat has as much impact on your symptoms as WHAT you eat? In this episode of the Inside Knowledge l’ll explain why changing HOW you’re eating can improve your digestive symptoms, even without changing your diet..

Podcast transcript

Today’s episode is all about mindful eating.

It doesn’t matter if you haven’t heard that term before, I’m going to explain to you a little bit about what I actually mean. And there’s going to be some practical things in here which you can start implementing from today to really help you understand a bit more about how you eat, how it affects your digestion, and why this is a really important topic if you’ve got IBS.

Managing your stress response

I’m sure you’ve all heard of the fight or flight response. That’s when we’re in a state of stress and high anxiety and it’s our body’s natural response to threat, to perceived threat. Now obviously in today’s world we don’t often face mortal danger, mortal peril, but what we do have is a lot of chronic stress.

We have things coming at us all the time. Raising our blood pressure, raising our defences, and this is basically like natural response to, like I said, to danger. But the way your body deals with it is to get your body ready for fighting or for running away, which means that your skeletal muscles. Your legs and your arms get a good flow of blood, your digestion doesn’t, and I’m going to come on to that in a sec.

Basically your body is trying to get you ready for tackling the danger. That could mean expanding your pupils so that you can see clearly, raising your heart rate a little bit. But what it’s NOT going to do is prioritise digestion, prioritise breaking down your proteins effectively so you can properly absorb amino acids.

Moving into rest and digest

So, we need to get into an eating state of mind. We need to make sure that our blood flow is going to the digestive system and that also we can help produce our stomach acid. If you think about when you’re in that fight or flight response mode, your body will not be prioritizing the digestion.

Which means it’s sending less blood flow to your gut, so there’s not as much energy, basically, just being sent towards the digestive system, and that can slow down motility, and it can also affect the production of stomach acid and digestive enzymes.

It can actually, as well, speed up digestion. If you’re someone who experiences, high diarrhoea predominance rather than constipation actually what happens is your body’s trying to evacuate quickly in order to run. It’s kind of like ‘let’s get rid of this stuff’. We need to then be ready to run away.

Some of the simple things that you can do to start addressing this even if your experience of stress doesn’t go away is to just help your body to get into a more parasympathetic mode.

Deep breathing

That’s like the rest and digest, the calm state. And one of the ways we can influence that is through our breathing. And the way that that works is that when we’re breathing out and slow, long out breaths, that helps to reassure your body, our bodies that we’re in a good space. We’re trying to get our bodies into eating mode here.

This mindful eating is helpful. And it is helped by slow breathing, so just simple three breaths before you eat each meal can just help to kind of physically get you out of that stressed state. So where you feel like you’re holding tension, you’re like maybe holding your breath a little bit, with shallow breaths, just really doing some deep breathing.

Breathing before meals for mindful eating

And if you feel like this is way too basic, way too simple, and this is not going to have any effect on your digestion, I just really encourage you to give it a go for one week. Just try taking three breaths, sitting at the table and trying to get into digestion mode before you eat anything.

Now you might have heard the phrase like, the first bite is with the eye, and that is all about like presenting your food nicely, making it look nice, rather than like slopping it out onto the plate.

But actually, the first phase of digestion is sometimes called the cephalic phase. It’s actually engaging your brain and really getting your senses involved in the digestive process. The way this helps is that it’s like encouraging our body to think, ‘Oh yeah, food is coming, OK let’s switch into digest mode’.

And that helps us to release our stomach acid and to try and get the motility regulated so that you try and minimize your digestive symptoms. So all you have to do is try and take three breaths. That’s one of the first things we can do. Easily do. It’s free, it doesn’t take much time.

You can take longer doing like a calming food meditation if you have the time and the space to do that, but just simply three simple breaths could be enough to start clicking out of that fight or flight mode.

Focus on the meal – notice what you eat

Something else which also really helps is to avoid distractions. This means turning off Netflix, stop scrolling your phone and put away your book. If you feel really self-conscious eating at a table on your own, then perhaps you could have a podcast on or a radio program or something that you can just listen to.

But the idea is to really focus on the food rather than looking at something else. You’ve probably been in that sort of situation where you’re just working and you’re reaching for the crisps and then you reach again and they’re all gone and you think, Oh, I ate them all and I didn’t even notice I was eating them because they’re just kind of mindlessly eating.

Now, that is just eating, like I said, mindlessly rather than mindfully, so you want to try and avoid that by stopping too many distractions whilst you are in the middle of a meal.

Chew your food

The next practical tip for you is to try and chew your food really, really well. This is about giving your body the best chance of breaking it up in a chemical digestion way.

Think about food coming in through your mouth, we’ve got various forms of mechanisms to break the food down. Firstly, we use our teeth to mash the food up in the mouth. It also gets mixed with saliva there. And some of the digestion of carbohydrates actually starts in the mouth, something called salivary amylase, which is like a digestive enzyme inside your saliva.

So the longer you can chew your food. These enzymes actually will start to get to work and break the food down.

Taste the sweetness

If you wanna do a cool little experiment, you can try how long it takes for bread to taste sweet if you chew it and chew it and try it with some whole grain bread and some white bread.

And normally the white bread could go to glucose quicker because it’s actually a simple, more simple carbohydrate and it will be broken down quicker. You can try this with any kind of carbohydrate. It’s like rice as well. And do a little experiment to see how long it takes your food to start tasting sweet. And that is the point of chewing your food up really well though.

Its mostly about creating a larger surface area in order for the chemical digestion to happen as effectively as it can inside your stomach and then your small intestines. If you’re swallowing big lumps of food, there’s only going to be one surface area on that large lump.

Whereas if you mash the food up really well, You’re creating a larger surface area where the things like your stomach acid, digestive enzymes can get to work and start to break that food down in a chemical way. This makes the molecules small enough to be properly absorbed in your small intestine.

Chewing your food mindfully

There was some research thinking that we had to chew up our food about 30 times before we could swallow it.

And actually, this takes a very long time and it feels a lot like overkill. It’s quite laborious. But it’s a good experiment, again, to see how long it takes you to do this 30 chews and what it feels like to have food that’s almost to a very baby ish food consistency, so very smooth with no big lumps.

That’s what you’re aiming for.

The other benefits to chewing…

Really well is it just allows you to slow down in your meal times and you normally are able to better judge whether you’ve had enough food if you eat more slowly. Whereas sometimes if you eat really fast, you can actually eat more than you need to because of the way that the chemical digestion processes happen.

When you eat things like protein and fats, you get chemical messages back from your gut to your brain to tell you that you’ve got these nutrients in. And when you’ve had enough, you can stop eating. Whereas if you’ve eaten really, really fast, you could have already eaten more than you need to.

Mindful eating – Sitting at the table

The next little practical tip that I want to touch on is about sitting at the table. Not everyone does this and I think sitting away from the TV, sitting with the plate of food on the table and you’re on a chair rather than the food, like, on your lap, it can really help your digestion to work better.

And it can just really help you just sit upright, which also improves your digestion.

Are you TOO mindful?

Whilst we’re talking about mindfulness, I thought it’d be also worth running through a little bit of information about getting too mindful. And I know that sounds a bit odd, but I think there’s a real balance between tuning into our symptoms, tuning into what’s going on.

And also they’re not ruminating too much on them because we also want to be able to eat without fear, without the worry that everything you eat is going to be causing some IBS nightmare. There’s two words for this. One’s interoception. That’s like understanding your various body states and being aware of them.

And also just like being aware of everything in your outside environment. So it’s a balance between being aware of what’s happening inside. But also not becoming obsessed or becoming too hyper focused on your symptoms and forgetting to bring your senses and your awareness to things that are outside your body.

Which, I find people who have IBS, because it’s so all-consuming and can be so painful, so, you know, embarrassing, all of these things, you focus on it so much, that actually it’s important to bring that mindfulness to other parts of your life. Whilst I’m saying yes, be mindful about eating, I’m also asking you here to be, I suppose, mindful about other things in your life.

So it could be being mindful when you go for a walk. Like you’re walking your kids to school, you’re getting a commute to work. You’re just trying to bring a bit of awareness to the sensations of walking, you know, the feeling the rain on your skin, feeling your feet on the floor, like, maybe just bringing that mindfulness sensation to everyday things, not just to your digestion.

Because that hyper focus can also start to really create little patterns and tracks in your brain that are quite hard to break out of. And that’s part of like feeling better is going to be able to break those thought patterns down so that you can have more normal thoughts about your digestion. Sometimes little things that help with that is like little gratitude practices like thinking about things that are good in your life.

Focusing on things that are good in your body despite having IBS.

So thinking about

  • yes I have got digestive issues and I can still enjoy my life or
  • I can enjoy my life, and still feel this pain, and I can get on and do things,
  • other parts of my body are working really well, like, are my legs operating okay? I’m grateful for that.

Now I know, it is all consuming, and I’m not saying, it’s just as easy as saying, just forget about it, or just focus on something else.

Because when you’re in a lot of pain or you’re feeling really uncomfortable, it’s not easy to just switch off. But there’s a part to mindfulness to trying to bring some of that hyperfocus to other parts of the whole body that we are. It’s not just about your IBS. Your life is more than your IBS.

Mindful eating for IBS

So just to sum up this episode, we’ve talked about mindful eating, how to slow down, how to try to make time for your meals, and actually to chew your food really properly, make meals more of an experience where you are engaging your whole body, not just your mouth.

And also then we talked about mindfulness and how you can Start to try and use that to focus less on your digestive symptoms and put them in a context of your entire life and your whole person.

That’s it for this episode. I will see you soon.

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