The gastrointestinal tract (GIT) has a big job to do, every day and multiple times a day.
But did you know, better digestion begins before you ever take a bite?
It's called the cephalic phase of digestion, and it can have a significant impact on healthy digestion, positively or negatively. We're going to show you how to avoid its kryptonite, and leverage 4 simple steps to acing your digestive pre-game.
This critical pre-game of digestion gets your body moving and preparing for digesting your food the moment you hear that familiar sizzle on the pan or smell the savory aroma wafting up from your plate. And here at Rooted Path Nutrition, we find it also helps our patients with a more mindful and healthier relationship with food as an added benefit!
The Cephalic Phase
Incredibly, before food or drink enters the mouth, the body is aware of it. Multiple studies suggest that the cephalic phase of digestion is critical to healthy digestion. Let’s explore how and why.
The cephalic phase can be thought of as the sensory information that happens before and after we take a bite of food: sound, sight, odor, taste, texture and thoughts associated with food are sensory opportunities and stimuli. These stimuli provoke a digestion-related response in the body.
The sound of fajitas sizzling on a hot plate, the vibrant green of a kiwi, the smell of baking bread, and the tart taste of a granny smith apple, are all stimuli that lead to an increased release of hormones, secretion of acid in the stomach, changes in blood flow to the intestines, saliva release in the mouth, and even heart rate changes. The cephalic phase contributes to waking up the digestive processes and gets the body ready to process the meal.
Cephalic Phase Kryptonite: The Effect of Stress on the GIT
For the most part, the GIT regulates its own motility and secretory activity, however, external stressors can override the cephalic phase and alter GIT function.
Negative feelings such as anger, fear, or stress disrupt a properly functioning GIT by activating the fight / flight / freeze response. When this happens, a cascade of hormones are released (think adrenaline and epinephrine) causing the body’s energy to be directed to the muscles, heart, and lungs as the body gets ready to run or fight the metaphorical lion in the room.
As a result, GIT activity is reduced, slowing the transit of the meal through the GIT or inhibiting needed secretions of digestive helpers. This can be perceived as symptoms of poor appetite, early fullness, heartburn, nausea, bloating, constipation, or diarrhea.
It’s not until the stressor has passed that the body can get back to rest and digest mode.
Supporting the Cephalic Phase
Regulating your nervous system and engaging with the cephalic phase of digestion before meals can help digestion, for some, even more so than taking a digestive aid!
4 Ways to engage with the cephalic phase of digestion:
Be present during the cooking, plating, and first bite. Not the one cooking? ordering out? Don’t worry, you can do this even if the food arrives via Uber Eats!
Find a comfortable, relaxing place to sit down with your food.
Before you eat, consider how the food is affecting all your senses. How does it look? Close your eyes and notice the sound and smells. Think about how the food will taste and what the texture will be like.
Shift to thoughts of appreciation and gratitude for your food. Choose a food mantra or intention for the meal. A food mantra/intention may read something like the following:
“May my cells receive the nutrition from this meal. Thank you to all who made this meal possible - the sunshine, the land, the water, the seeds, the farmers and pollinators, the harvesting team, the trucks, drivers and retail clerks who sold me this food. I am feeling so grateful.”
The digestive system is quite amazing when you take time to think about it. By slowing down and bringing awareness, gratitude, and a sense of connection to our food and the eating experience, we can actually support the process of digestion for the better.
If you’re struggling with digestive issues, looking to build more mindful eating skills, or just want to feel more at ease around food in general, consider talking to one of the nutritionists at Rooted Path Nutrition.
Written by the Rooted Path Nutrition Team