Wanna Digest? Rest!
By Erica Zelfand

Did you know your nervous system controls your digestive health?

Well, it does!

Let’s look at the two branches of the autonomic nervous system that play into healthy digestion and elimination:

Sympathetic Response: Fight, Flight, & Fright

Running from tigers in the jungle, our ancestors were well acquainted with the sympathetic stress response. By expanding the lungs and increasing the heart rate to send more oxygen to the muscles, the sympathetic response helped our ancestors flee from harm.

When they were being chased by 400 pounds of teeth and claws, our ancestors’ bodies likewise knew that stopping to squat behind a tree to have a bowel movement was not the priority. Pausing to respond to the “call of nature” could be the difference between life and death.

Fast forwarding to today’s world, most of us aren’t running from tigers. Nevertheless, when we are in a state of sympathetic dominance, our bodies can’t tell the difference between the everyday stress at work and a predator in the jungle. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, blood is shunted away from the digestive tract and directed to the muscles. That means that stress slows down digestion, leading to poor absorption of nutrients and constipation.

Parasympathetic Response: Rest and Digest

The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other end, is active when we’re relaxed. This is the state where we can best absorb the nutrients in our food, eliminate toxins regularly, and feel an increased interest in sex. This is the state we want to be in when it comes to digestive function.

For this reason, enhancing the parasympathetic response improves appetite, digestion, and elimination.


Here are some easy ways to balance your nervous system and optimize digestion:

Remember, the goal is to decrease sympathetic and increase parasympathetic action.

While Eating:

  • Sit while eating. Do not drive, walk, or multi-task while eating.
  • Avoid stressful conversations or arguments during mealtime. Eat in a relaxing and pleasant atmosphere.
  • Turn off televisions and computer screens while eating.
  • Chew your food well (aim for 32 bites before swallowing). This is one of the best ways to “trick” your nervous system into entering a parasympathetic state. Chewing also coats your food with the enzymes found in saliva, which will make your food easier to digest. Furthermore, chewing your food thoroughly before swallowing makes you to eat slower, which gives your brain more time to register the signal when you’re full. (Ever notice you’re more likely to overeat if you eat quickly?)
  • While you’re eating, try to open up your peripheral vision. This is a handy tool to help calm your nervous system in any situation.

While on the Toilet:

  • EVERY morning, get up and sit on the toilet. Do not play video games, do not look at your phone, do not read. Just sit and breathe and relax for 5 minutes. Nothing may happen at first, but over time, this exercise will train your body to have a bowel movement in the morning. And there’s nothing like a morning bowel movement to put a spring in your step for the rest of the day!
  • Listen to your body. As soon as you feel the urge to have a bowel movement, do not ignore it. Make your way to the toilet. If you ignore the urge, you might start feeling it less and less, increasing the risk of developing constipation.