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Digestion starts in the brain, not the mouth

Posted on: Wednesday 12th August 2015

By Mikki Willden

One New Zealand’s most respected Sports Nutritionists who will be a regular contributor for Challenge Family. 

If you eat your food when you’re feeling stressed, for whatever reason, your stress hormone cortisol will be elevated. Historically, high cortisol levels signalled to your brain that your life is in danger and puts you into the ‘fight or flight’ mode. Of course, you’re not actually going to be doing either. You are just about to eat. This response, which once kept us alive in times of stress, is now working against us. Cortisol causes blood sugars to rise (preparing us to ‘fight’ or ‘run’) and results in an increase in circulating insulin. Over time, chronically elevated insulin levels contribute to inflammatory processes responsible for poor metabolic health – weight gain, storage of fat around our stomach, increased blood pressure, risk of heart disease…. In addition, insulin release will also signal for cortisol to be released, thus creating a cortisol-insulin cycle

Why does this matter to you? Think about the environment you might normally eat in.

Do you often eat standing up, while doing something else?

Do you often eat in your car on the way somewhere, and may be stuck in traffic?

Do you eat at your desk at work because you don’t feel like you have time to take a lunch break?

Are you often rushing from one task to the next, and eating is something that is secondary to all of the other things you are doing?

Then you may be creating an environment where your body isn’t responding appropriately to the foods you are eating. This isn’t just about weight and fat loss, it’s about your ability to absorb and utilise nutrients properly. Slim people can have metabolic health issues too.

So… what to do? Something I encourage all of my clients to do is to make time to eat. Doing this takes discipline – it can be more challenging that actually changing the foods we eat, but just as important.

Breathe. Properly. This is the easiest way to promote a calm state in the body and takes no time at all. Practice breathing from your stomach (as opposed to your chest) a few times a day, particularly just before eating

Get up 15 minutes earlier to eat breakfast in an unhurried manner

Eat at the table where possible with little distraction so you can focus on eating and relaxing

Write down whatever is on your mind that might be causing undue stress, (be it a list of tasks you need to do, or a problem that needs your attention) so you feel that you’ve taken some steps to address this before eating.

Take a proper lunch break so you can remove yourself from the physical environment of work

By focusing on creating a relatively stress-free environment to eat in, this will become a habit over time and ultimately aid your body to have an appropriate hormonal response to the food you eat. On that note (food), I made two soups this week that you’ll find in the recipe section: broccoli and blue cheese soup and a beetroot and cauliflower number. As these are relatively low in protein, I’d definitely back them up with a source of protein such as a mini frittata, a couple of chicken drumsticks or a tin of salmon. There you have it: lunch.


Posted in Athlete's Journey » Nutrition

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