© 2011 Nancy Appleton Ph.D. & G.N. Jacobs
Longtime readers may have noticed that I have consistently said to exercise, pray, meditate, write, listen to music, or even hug the kids and pet the dog before eating. Naturally, I wasn’t just making this advice up as I went along. My source is a giant of medicine Walter B. Cannon, head of the Physiology Department at Harvard for many years. The shortest word for this field is psychoneuroimmunology, which is barely descriptive.
Cannon observed that our state of being and bodies are inextricably linked. Our mouths water, when, like Homer Simpson, we smell – doonuuts! – or even healthier foods like my son’s special wine and soy sauce marinade for lamb. The nice smell causes saliva and starts the digestive process. The aroma sparks a positive association and we feel good just being nearby.
All aspects of digestion can be affected by a positive or negative state of mind. Stress out emotionally or even physically by forgetting to drink water and watch the saliva disappear. The muscle contractions called peristalsis that drive the food from the mouth to the intestines can stop or slow down. Enzymes can decrease while stomach acid increases. Nutrients may become toxic in the presence of toxic emotions, because of improper digestion.
Cannon observed that stress is a highly individualized factor completely dependent on how we choose to perceive things. Some people freak out practically running around with their heads cut off and others breathe deeply and take baby steps dealing with their problems. I’ll give you one guess which type of person typically seems healthier digesting well. Stress happens, but distress doesn’t have to.
The stress reaction is part of the Fight or Flight we all need to help us deal with that tiger that just moved into the tall grass. Stored energy is opened up and our ability to eat new food shuts down. But, we will feel the same tightness in our gut if we try to eat while feeling depressed about the day in the office. Our bodies can’t tell the difference between the tiger and a profound need to cry or shout.
Laughter has even helped people get over diseases like cancer in a small part because the patient is now fully digesting their food after relieving stress. Most problems can be handled by laughing, journaling, meditating and/or praying. A small few need professional assistance. I make no statements about prayer other than to say the body enters the same state as meditation getting the same benefits whether God is listening or not.
It makes sense that people not eat while in distress. A depressed person, say, will get no nutritional benefit from their food causing a cycle downward into more depression and anger. Remember that everything works better when you’re happy. Push away from that plate and get your head and heart on straight before eating. Don’t worry eat happy!
Cannon, W. B. THE WISDOM OF THE BODY (New York: Norton, 1932)