Take a deep breath.
Try audibly sighing as you exhale.
Can you feel your body relaxing?
Each time you take a deep breath, you are telling your body that everything is OK. Every time you purposely slow your breathing, you stimulate your vagus nerve, activating the parasympathetic (a.k.a. “rest-and-digest”) nervous system (link to Nervous System 101) and giving your body permission to calm down, to relax, and to get out of “fight-or-flight” mode.
Fight-or-Flight: The Original Digestion Blocker
“Fight-or-flight” mode is when the body reacts to a stressful event (e.g. seeing a bear in the woods) by increasing blood sugar and sending blood flow to your arms and legs so you can survive the stressful event (e.g. run away from the bear).
The digestive organs are happy to give up blood flow and nutrients to survive acute danger. This makes sense – there is no need to digest food if you’re about to be food for someone else! But when this happens every day, for many minutes or hours every day (Important: the body doesn’t distinguish between meetings and bears!), it robs the digestive tract of essential nutrients – and digestion suffers.
What happens to digestion when you’re stuck in “fight-or-flight”?
- Less stomach acid
- Fewer digestive enzymes
- Fewer pancreatic enzymes
- Less bile
- Slower motility
- Poorer digestion
- Poorer absorption
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Depression of the immune system in the gut (i.e. secretory IgA)
Deep Breathing: The Key to Cultivating “Rest-and-Digestion”
When activated, the vagus nerve has a calming and restorative effect. To activate your vagus nerve right now, try this easy breathing exercise.
- Inhale to the count of 4 (Inhale 1-2-3-4)
- Hold to the count of 7 (Hold 1-2-3-4-5-6-7)
- Exhale to the count of 8 (Exhale 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8)
With that one, slow, intentional breath, you significantly slowed your heart rate and maximally stimulated your vagal activity. Do you feel the difference in your body?
Try taking three breaths in a row (about 1 minute of deep breathing). Do you feel calmer? More relaxed?
Switching to “rest-and-digestion” mode optimizes blood flow to your digestive organs and, thus, digestion.
Try taking 10 deep breaths before your next meal and see if you notice a difference!