If you know me you also know that I actually don’t care if you look great naked. And I honestly don’t care if you’re carrying a round a little spare tire. My mission as a health coach, massage therapist and yoga teacher is stress relief not weight loss. In some cases, though, these are two intertwined issues.
Did you realize that if you scarf down your food while feeling even a low level of chronic stress you’re less likely to burn the calories efficiently? Instead, that food will go straight to plumping up your belly fat! True story.
To understand this fully, it’s important have a basic grasp on the nervous system. In a nutshell (because I know you’re a busy bee), the autonomic nervous system has two parts: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
If you live and work in the overstimulated 21st century, chances are that the sympathetic nervous system, or “fight or flight” response, has been activated far too often. This part of nervous system prepares us for action; the classic example is running from a mountain lion in the woods. When that kind of stressor arises, hormones like cortisol are released from the adrenals, all our blood rushes to our limbs to prepare us to fight or flee, our heart rate increases and our muscles contract. Other non-essential functions like immune system, sleep and digestion start to shut down.
The other part of the autonomic nervous system, the parasympathetic, is more difficult for us to access. This “rest and digest” system is responsible for creating balance and equilibrium in the body’s systems, allowing us to relax and repair. When in the parasympathetic state digestive enzymes are released, heart rate drops, muscles relax and urinary output increases.
Most of us generally don’t run from mountain lions on the daily. Any perceived threat, though, can activate our fight or flight response. Deadlines, sirens, fights with a spouse, unpaid bills… these are our modern day mountain lions! And because there’s seemingly no distinct end to these everyday stressors, we often get ourselves stuck living in the sympathetic nervous system.
Many health issues – heart disease and diabetes to name two – are shown to stem form this state of chronic low-grade stress. Additionally, when in fight and flight mode we aren’t digesting our food to maximum capacity. Our metabolic power – the digestive fire in the belly – is compromised. We continuously release the stress hormone cortisol which has a mysterious tendency to make us store extra fat in the belly region. Even extreme exercise when done in a stressed state can’t slay the extra belly bulge caused from consuming food while in a sympathetic nervous system state.
How often do you eat on the go? Or while working? Or watching the news? Are you eating in the car at stoplights? Or in a business meeting? Or while jotting down to-do lists for the day? Or even while standing over the sink while trying to get kids out the door for school?
Any of these eating-while-multitasking examples can catapult you into the sympathetic nervous system, on the off chance you weren’t there already.
But wait, there’s good news! It’s super simple to shift your nervous system back to parasympathetic before eating.
All that’s needed is a pause. Pause and breathe. Make your mealtimes mindful. Create a little conscious transition space and time before eating. Just ten deep, long breaths undistracted by work or media can make that nervous system switch which will then increase your metabolic power. Slow down your eating, chew thoroughly, focus solely on the sensations of eating.
When you are skilled at making this shift in from “fight and flight” to “rest and digest” you can use your food intake more efficiently. You will lose that extra belly weight and instead use those nutrients to build muscle power. The systems in your body will be in balance. You’ll be better able to distinguish between real and perceived threats, and ultimately be better able to run when faced with a real mountain lion someday.