Norwich nutritional therapist Catherine Jeans asks us how we breathe
This might seem a little off topic for a nutritional therapist, but one of the things I talk to my nutrition clients a lot about is how they breathe. So what does this have to do with your food and nutrition?
There’s an age old saying – we are what we eat. But this is actually quite misleading, because we actually are what we can absorb. Digestion is an incredible process that our body has to do, day in day out. Take that piece of broccoli, chicken breast or grain of brown rice. Break it down. Extract all the nutrients it needs, from the fibre to the B vitamins, the amino acids to the calcium. It takes a lot of energy. And a lot of really complex processes, both chemical and mechanical.
One of the biggest problems for digestion and absorption is when we eat too quickly, on the go, mindlessly and without enough time to properly digest our food. So many of us eat when we’re stressed, and this can really affect how well we break down and extract all that goodness.
Why does stress impact our digestion?
If we’re eating when stressed, we’re releasing more stress hormones, and this can have a direct impact on our digestion. When we are stressed, overwhelmed or too busy, our body is prioritising the ‘fight or flight’ part of our nervous system. All our body wants to do is stop us being eaten by a bear or another unfriendly beast. It thinks we are still prehistoric cavemen and women! At this time, digestion isn’t a priority. Our body and brains only care about our survival.
Our heart rate and breathing rate speed up. Blood supply is diverted away from our digestive system so all the amazing signals and mechanical movements in our digestive system are slowed right down. Enter that chicken breast you’ve just eaten, and not properly chewed, and your gut really struggles!
So why does deep breathing help?
The other arm of our nervous system is the rest-digest response, and this kicks into gear when we are relaxed and all sense of danger has passed. Here is where our body balances out our stress hormones, prioritises blood flow to our gastrointestinal organs, and ensures we get the best from our last meal. It’s also where we can get good sleep, relax, heal and repair.
Deep, calm, breaths that activate our diaphragm tap directly into our nervous system via the vagus nerve. This type of breathing let’s our body know it’s okay to relax and allow good digestion to take place. So even if we still have lots of stress going on around us, we can help our digestion simply by taking deep breaths.
I see so many clients with irritable bowel syndrome (bloating, wind, toilet issues, reflux) and of course it’s important to rule out anything serious underlying these issues. But when there’s no obvious cause, I do find in many cases that it really can help to start by slowing down how you eat, focusing on your food and taking three deep breaths before anything goes into your mouth.
So why not try some deep breathing today?
Inhale through your nose for a count of four, and as you inhale really allow your belly to inflate (often we breathe in reverse, but it’s important to allow the belly to inflate like a balloon on the inhale). Try to hold this for five, and breathe out slowly through your nose or mouth for six.
I’m so passionate about the power of breathwork, that during the 2020 lockdown I completed my training as a yoga teacher, learning many powerful breathing techniques and functional movement that I can integrate into my nutritional therapy clinic to help support my clients even further.