Using Food to Fuel the Adrenal Glands - How to Not Be Tired and Stressed Out
by: Dr. Salna Smith, N.D.
It’s amazing how fast-paced and busy our day-to-day lives are. From the moment we wake, our adrenaline skyrockets as we compile our heavy list of to-dos. We all know it’s not “healthy,” but most of us are at a loss for how to change it. And so we push through. Running to get ready, racing to get everyone out the door on time, stressing about what we might be forgetting, or how—before our day has even started—there is already too much to get done.
Does this sound at all like a morning you’ve experienced recently? When you imagine yourself in this state, does it feel good in your body?
Not for me. I tense up. My stomach gets knotted, my face heats up, and I can tell my breathing is more rapid. Not the best situation for digesting and absorbing breakfast, to say the least.
This state is known as “fight-or-flight,” and is the state our nervous systems are in most of the day these days (sadly). Chronic low-grade stressors are the norm in Western society. We are bombarded from a young age with the message that to be considered successful and productive, we must work overtime and sacrifice our health, sanity, and overall happiness to achieve the utopian “life balance” we all so greatly desire. This leaves us in a perpetual state of feeling rushed. And that, my friend, is exhausting. Most of us function suboptimally most of the time—tired, sleep-deprived, anxious, and moody is the name of the game.
Somehow, our society has shifted from a “play outside ‘til it’s dark, homemade meals” ideal to a “go faster, do more, grab-‘n’-go” mentality that frankly is akin to the saying “death by a thousand cuts.”
It has created a slow decline in our quality of life, and at the forefront of this slippery slope of disease, is how we are eating.
Forget what we’re eating. That’s for another post. I’m talking about how we eat.
While on the subway, as we walk and talk, in our cars, working at our computers, during meetings—and we are definitely not taking the time to taste or chew our food. Our society is skilled in our advanced ability to gulp food and distract ourselves from the present moment. Compound this with quick-fix foods (lackluster sandwiches, canned soup, cereals, crackers, and sugary snacks) and we have a recipe for disaster.
But this isn’t anything new. We know this, right? “But what am I supposed to do, Dr. Salna? I can barely get through my day, much less add the additional stress of how I’m eating to my never-ending list of worries.”
Knowledge is power.
Enter a little background. When we are constantly rushing… and eating… and rushing, we keep our bodies on high alert. This means, in the “fight-or-flight” state, all our blood is diverted to our extremities and brain to keep us alert and poised to “run” from our attackers. This is, in and of itself, quite a healthy response. Need to suddenly stand up and speak in a meeting? Adrenaline helps you do that. It allows the brain to become focused and for you to deliver the information your colleagues are waiting for. You definitely aren’t focused on digesting your lunch.
What if I told you that when we focus on eating—actually chewing, tasting, and swallowing our food—we enhance the body’s ability to digest our food, absorb the nutrients, and in turn have higher energy, more focus, and a calmer outlook in our busy days?
In order for us to digest our food optimally, though, we need to be in the “rest-and-digest” phase, whereby the parasympathetic (or calming side) of our nervous system is activated. This shifts blood flow back to the digestive system; optimizes digestive juices from the gallbladder, stomach, and pancreas for breakdown of food; and promotes healthy bacterial gut flora (read: less gas and bloating). It also allows for optimal
peristalsis in the large bowel, leading to better elimination of waste. All in all, when we eat in a conscious way, we can better utilize the food we’ve just eaten to help us conquer our day! That, to me, is winning!
Being conscious of how we eat is known as “mindful eating.”
Many misunderstand this term and take it to mean being acutely aware of what we are eating. This can lead to restrictive food practices (including anorexia and bulimia) as well as orthorexia—a relatively new term used to describe those with a fixation on eating only healthy foods. These limiting food practices at all intensities create a jail-type mentality and throw the body back into the flight-or-fight, adrenaline-driven state of preventing optimal digestion.
Introduce mindful eating—being consciously aware of how we are eating, and eating with purpose. This awareness works to squash restrictions. This consciousness refers to bringing our awareness to our food when we eat. What our food looks like, how it tastes/feels in our mouths, and taking the time to properly chew and swallow our food versus gulping it back so we can move on to the next task. It is, in essence, the calm, happy sensation we feel in our bodies when enjoying a meal with loved ones—the ambiance, table setting, food plating, laughter, great conversation, and pure enjoyment of great food with fabulous company. Ahhhh!
Since this type of atmosphere is most likely not going to happen at the office or with your kids on the soccer field, I’ve compiled a few easy health hacks to start you on the road to more mindful eating.
Mindful eating can be accomplished in a number of ways, and by no means is the following list exhaustive. If you were to pick one or two mindful-eating practices to begin today, you’d be ahead of the game. Remember: It’s amazing what can happen when we focus on being present—in our lives, at the kitchen table, etc. The lens with which we view the world widens, and this, my friends, is beautiful. It puts you back in control of your health.
So, give those glands of yours that manage stress (aka your adrenal glands) and your mind a well-deserved break. Digest your food optimally. Have more energy and stress less with these simple techniques. You’ll be so happy you did.
- Rid Yourself of Distractions: Turn off the TV or radio, and put your phone on silent. Either enjoy the silence or have family time (i.e. conversation) around the table. Make this your new norm for a week, and see how you feel after meals. Asking one another about the most uplifting part of their day is a great way to enhance mindful eating through gratitude.
- Appreciate Your Food: Mindful eating isn’t about developing a superhuman power of concentration, but more so of developing a deep appreciation of food. Where it came from, how it is prepared, and just enjoying the food you are eating. This can be practiced when eating anything from a salad to pizza. Really enjoy your food. This isn’t about being proud when you eat that apple and guilty when you reach for a donut. Aim to eat intuitively—when you appreciate your food, you’ll be more aware of the way your body feels when you eat. When we do this, we tend to eat slower and savour each bite, which optimizes digestion; we stress less, and our energy improves.
- Eat Slower: This can feel like torture for many people. To chew 20 times before swallowing while putting the fork down between bites. Argh! My suggestion: Be gentle with yourself. Remind yourself that meals are not a race. Try introducing chopsticks as your utensil to slow things down a bit, and reframe “eat slower” into “enjoy and savour”—this will bring you back to the present moment so you can truly taste your food, which will inevitably allow you to slow down.
- Don’t Forget to Breathe: I often suggest a few deep-belly breaths (diaphragmatic breathing) before meals and after. Take a deep breath into your belly so your belly button rises. Try not to move your shoulders. Do this three times before you begin to eat and at the end of your meal. This allows for a moment of calm, and encourages blood flow to the digestive system, allowing for a quiet mind and optimal digestion.
- Plate Your Food: Seems silly to state, but being a society of “busy,” we often eat out of bags. Putting your food on a plate, however small the portion, allows you to see what you’re eating so you can appreciate it (see tip #2), which brings awareness to your meal. This habit is one that turns eating into a pleasurable experience and helps refocus on the food itself.