Kathie Madonna Swift
Ancient Ayurveda and Chinese medicine honored the belly as the seat of wisdom, intelligence and the root of good health. Fast-forward a few thousand years and, not surprisingly, the ancients had it right. Turns out, a number of recent studies have confirmed that our brains and bellies – or our minds and digestion – are intimately connected, consulting and communicating with each other virtually around the clock. So all those common phrases like "butterflies in your stomach," "gut feelings," "gut-wrenching," or "going with your gut," are much more than just figures of speech – they’re how we experience the gut/brain connection that impacts our lives everyday.
Your brain and your gut are intimately connected. Just like the brain, our GI (gastrointestinal) tract is packed with neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine – which is why the gut is often referred to as "the second brain." Too much stress and anxiety can upset the balance of bacteria in our gut, which contributes to the IBS-type problems that many of us are familiar with, especially when we feel like we're under the gun. And when coritsol, our primary stress hormone, goes into overdrive, that actually promotes fat gain around the middle, the last thing we want. If a stressed-out brain can make life miserable for the belly by upsetting digestion and adding on pounds, the good news is, that with a little training, you can use your mind to help heal the damage.
Often, when digestion isn’t functioning the way it should, it’s a good indication that we need to re-balance the scales. To do that, I suggest a two-tiered approach – one that both nourishes both your belly and your mind. Step 1 helps prime your nutritional pump, focusing on optimally feeding the trillions of microbes in our "gut garden" that support health in our minds and bodies. Step 2 brings your brain into the process, by training the mind to focus on the eating experience.
STEP 1: TEND THE GUT
Figure in more fiber. Nothing inspires the busy bugs in our belly more than vegetables! Set a specific, daily vegetable intake goal, building up over time if you’re new to the game. Try working in 1-2 cups of veggies at breakfast, lunch and dinner - and if you're a snacker, chomp on crunchy whole veggies between meals.
Favor fermented foods. Foods with live active cultures provide a friendly boost to the residents within our bellies who thrive on meeting new bacterial buddies. Enjoy plain, unsweetened yogurt in a smoothie, a scoop of sauerkraut on that veggie burger, raw apple cider vinegar in your salad dressing or a tempeh stir-fry. Try adding fermented “sides” like kim chi and sauerkraut or sip on fermented drinks like kombucha and kefir to help your “garden” grow.
STEP 2: QUIET THE MIND
Practice mindful eating. When we eat mindfully, we give the "cephalic" (from the Greek, "in the head") digestion system the time it needs to properly digest food without irritation or inflammation. Eating mindfully enables the brain to connect with the body's inner sense of satiety, slowing everything down so that the gut has time to cleanse itself and prepare for the next intake of food. Eating mindfully also helps lower stress hormone levels (which can wreak havoc on digestion) and trains you to focus on the slow, sensual experience of eating, really tasting your food.
You can do at every meal. Here's how:
1. Take three relaxing breaths
2. Engage your senses: Think about and acknowledge your food
3. Eyes (look at your food)
4. Nose (take in the aromas)
5. Mouth (chew your food thoroughly)
6. Rest your hands in your lap every few bites and breathe again
Enjoy mindful eating. Nothing bothers the belly more than stressed-out eating, so get into the habit of thinking about what you're eating, literally. Eat with awareness, chew like you mean it, slowly and with intention, and integrate a few mindful pauses at the plate. Remember, minding your digestion is a delightful (and delicious!) way to care for brain, body and spirit!
An author, educator, and integrative clinical nutritionist, Kathie is recognized nationally as a dietitian who is making a difference.
Kathie maintains a food-centric and heart-core approach to health and healing, weaving in mind-body medicine, Qigong and other movement practices along with integrative nutrition therapies. She founded and directed cutting-edge nutrition programs at both Dr. Mark Hyman's UltraWellness Center and Canyon Ranch in Lenox, MA. She is the co-author of The Inside Tract: Your Good Gut Guide to Health and a contributing author to Dr. Hyman's NY Times Bestseller UltraMetabolism. Kathie is the Education Director for Food as Medicine, a professional nutrition training program for physicians and other healthcare givers and a lead teacher in the Healthy Living programs at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. Kathie teaches her audiences and readers how to create vibrant, nourishing lives combining the very best of modern science, nature and wisdom. Her latest book, The Swift Diet: 4 Weeks to Mend the Belly, Lose the Weight, and Get Rid of the Bloat, with co-author Joseph Hooper was published September 4 by Hudson Street Press, an imprint of the Penguin Group, and is available in stores now!