Eating mindfully this holiday season

by Shawn Postma, ND

This article was originally published in November 2018

People gathered around the holiday table.


Many of us turn to food when emotional distress surfaces — especially during the holidays. But what if I told you that eating mindfully actually may help to eliminate many of your problems?

Whether you suffer from anxiety, depression, stress, insomnia, pain, high blood pressure, obesity, or Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) — mindfulness-based interventions may be the easiest and cheapest solution to set you free.

The act of being mindful, or mindfulness, is being in a nonjudgmental state of awareness in the present moment. It is the difference between shoveling food down your throat and slowing down to enjoy your food.

It may sound simple, but there are some subtle things to be aware of that are essential to keeping a healthy digestive system this holiday season.

Are you a multitasking-eater?

As a naturopathic doctor, I always ask my patients what their eating habits are like: “What are you doing while you eat? Are you on your phone, computer or watching a show? How easy is it for you to sit down and enjoy your food without busying yourself?”

My intention in asking these questions is to better understand the state of their nervous system when they eat. The nervous system has a powerful impact on our digestive function and often is overlooked as an underlying culprit in many health issues.

It turns out that multitasking while eating is a seemingly harmless habit that inflicts many people. According to the American Dietetic Association, approximately 62 percent of people report that they are often too busy to sit down to eat and 91 percent typically watch TV while eating meals at home.1

Eat for a healthy nervous system

The nervous system, specifically the autonomic nervous system, is composed of the sympathetic, parasympathetic and enteric divisions.

The sympathetic division includes the stress response, or “fight or flight” reaction, which inhibits digestion. The parasympathetic division is the “rest and digest” response that helps to stimulate digestion. The enteric division, or the “second brain,” plays a significant role in regulating gastrointestinal motility, secretion, absorption, mucosal growth, local blood flow and the immune function.2

The fascinating thing about the enteric nervous system is that it is responsible for producing more than 90 percent of the body’s serotonin — the neurotransmitter often associated with happiness.2 Too much serotonin can trigger diarrhea and too little can lead to constipation.3

What’s the takeaway from all of this? Well, you likely guessed it already — your digestive system doesn’t operate very well under stress and negative emotions. If the sympathetic stress response is in constant overdrive, for example, it ultimately impedes healing of the digestive system due to decreased blood flow and corresponding supply of essential nutrients and oxygen.

Yet, even though it is one of the most powerful influences, the nervous system is rarely considered in addressing digestive issues.

Managing stress

While there is no perfect solution for fixing everything, mindful eating comes close.

The fact is, many people lead busy and stressful lives. While it would be nice to cut out stress and multitasking during meals completely, sometimes that is not a viable option. Whether it’s the stress of getting your children off to school, meeting deadlines for work, or being around your family during the holidays, exposure to stressful encounters is likely.

What is within your control, however, is your response to stress. This is where mindfulness comes into play.

In one meta-analysis review, mindfulness-based therapy was shown to be helpful in reducing pain, symptom severity, and improving quality of life for a variety of conditions, especially for irritable bowel syndrome.4 Another study showed that mindfulness therapy significantly helped reduce insomnia and improve quality of sleep for women with fibromyalgia.5 A comparative research review showed strong evidence for mindfulness in improving anxiety, depression, stress and general well-being in cancer patients.6 This review also found that mindfulness-based interventions were consistently effective in reducing blood pressure.6

Nonjudgmental awareness

Mindfulness can come in many different shapes and sizes; the key is to practice a nonjudgmental state of awareness in the present moment.

Mindful eating could begin by bringing a greater awareness to each of your senses and notice your response. For example, start by looking at all the colors on your plate. How many different colors do you see? Now take a moment to notice how you feel and what you are thinking.

If any judgment surfaces, simply acknowledge it without trying to change or fix it. It is as though you are observing everything from an objective point of view for a moment and then quickly moving on. Once you feel complete with this process, dig in and enjoy your food!

This exercise is just a beginning point to help you slow down and to develop a practice of awareness around eating food. As your awareness strengthens, you’ll be able to explore other senses or aspects of mindfulness.

Master your digestion

The ultimate goal is to practice mindfulness so that your nervous system shifts toward a parasympathetic “rest and digest” state. Developing this level of awareness takes a bit more finesse, but it is completely achievable and makes a big difference.

The physical signs and symptoms of being in a stressed sympathetic state are obvious when you know what to look for. Classic symptoms may include sweaty palms, cold hands or feet, increased heart rate, anxiety, restlessness, irritability, indigestion and muscle tension. Becoming mindfully cognizant of these symptoms is the first step to having better control over your digestion. Once you make the connection, you can begin to practice techniques that will shift your nervous system into a parasympathetic state, such as diaphragmatic breathing.

There are many ways to practice mindfulness and mindful eating. Most important is nonjudgmental awareness and curiosity. If eating mindfully has become stressful, you have missed the point. The goal is to get you to slow down and ideally get you into a parasympathetic “rest and digest” state. Overall, mindfulness can be a powerful way to treat the underlying cause of many health-related issues.

Extra tips

  1. Schedule a visit with your local naturopathic doctor or someone who does biofeedback therapy. Biofeedback is a great therapy to provide feedback on the state of your nervous system and techniques for balancing stress.
  2. Support your nervous system and adrenal glands by getting plenty of sleep, rest and exercise; eating a balanced diet; drinking half your body weight in ounces of water; and cutting out sugar and caffeine. Supplements such as B-vitamin complex, magnesium, vitamin C, Tulsi (Holy Basil), Ashwagandha, or Rescue Remedy may be helpful as well.
  3. Stimulate your digestion 15 minutes before eating by taking Swedish bitters, which generally help to increase hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes.

Shawn Postma is a naturopathic physician who aims to help people achieve lasting relief from chronic digestive issues and anxiety through the use of natural medicine, biofeedback therapy and therapeutic fasting. He holds a doctorate in naturopathic medicine from Bastyr University and a B.A. in sociology from the University of Puget Sound.

*The contents of this article are for informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice; the content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read within this article.

  1. Hellmich, N. (2004). Most people multitask, so must people don’t sit down to eat.
  2. Bernardazzi, C., Pego, B, et al (2016). Neuroimmunomodulation in the Gut: Focus on Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Mediators of Inflammation, July 4th.
  3. GI Society: Canadian Society of Intestinal Research (2004). IBS and Serotonin.
  4. Lakhan, S.E., Schofield, K.L. (2013). Mindfulness-based therapies in the treatment of somatization disorders: a systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS One, 8(8).
  5. Amutio, A., Franco, C., Sanchez-Sanchez, L.C. et al (2018). Effects of mindfulness training on sleep problems in patients with fibromyalgia. Front Psychol, 9: 1365.
  6. Carlson, L.E. (2012). Mindfulness-based interventions for physical conditions: a narrative review evaluating levels of evidence. ISRN Psychiatry, 2012: 651583.

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