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Food Environment: Why You Shouldn’t Stress While You Eat

Tobias McGowan

       Consider for a moment how you eat your food. Do you eat on the go, in a business meeting, while driving (I hope not!), or while watching stressful television? These stressful conditions could be hurting your nutrition and health efforts.

       Most individuals don’t realize that high stress during the act of eating has a large impact on the body’s nutritional status. The way you perceive a specific environment and situation can dictate your level of stress, and thus alter the body’s ability to metabolize and digest food properly. The stress response controls everything from respiration to digestive enzyme release; therefore, we need to consider the deleterious effects of combining food consumption and a stressful environment. It is also important to consider and address prolonged uncontrolled stress imbalances. Let’s take a deeper look inside, so we can understand how to optimize the digestive and metabolic processes for peak health. 


The Autonomic Nervous System

           It is important to start with the basics of subconscious bodily control, which happens once we swallow our food. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the control center for visceral (organ) function, which regulates the body’s involuntary systems. The ANS is divided into three separate divisions: the enteric, the sympathetic, and the parasympathetic nervous system. These centers are regulated by the reptilian brain stem and are instinctual by nature.  

The Enteric Nervous System (ENS): Considered to be the brain of the “gut” or gastrointestinal system. The ENS is a local system of neurons deriving from the esophagus all the way down to the anus. It controls the digestive system and its actions. The ENS is innervated by the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and therefore it’s highly affected by the responses of both.

The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS): This system is in control of our major stress response, telling the body to either fight (defend ourselves) or flight (run for our lives) in a crisis mode. This activation to our physiology will release the primary stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. The SNS shuttles blood into the muscles and skin, thus, taking away the supply to the internal organs.  

The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS): This system controls rest, recovery and digestion. The PNS is active during calm and controlled times. It stimulates the release of growth and anti-aging hormones: DHEA, testosterone, progesterone, pregnenolone, and more.  


The Drawbacks of A Sympathetic Dominant State 

             If the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated and stress levels are elevated during the act of eating, our digestion will be directly compromised. As long as the SNS is driving the blood supply away from our internal organs, the body simply will not have the capacity to digest food matter properly. Therefore, digestive enzyme production (food breakdown), hydrochloric acid (primarily protein and bacteria breakdown), and other digestive sections will be slowed and inhibited. Overall metabolism and peristalsis at large will be negatively affected. During the act of eating our body should not be in a sympathetic dominant state.


What Is An Optimal Food Environment? 

        The goal is to shift into a parasympathetic state. This means that we want the body to be calm, relaxed, and receptive to consuming nutrition. It is important to set up an environment that allows you to connect with your food and be mindful of what is happening as you eat. You want to up-regulate your sensory perceptions with sight, feel, smell, and taste. This will maximize your capacity to digest, metabolize, absorb, assimilate, and eliminate food matter that is most conducive to health. Getting into a positive tranquil mode is essential for making your nutrition count.


Cumulative Stress

                  Stress is a natural part of life and is not necessarily bad. The body needs a certain amount of stress to function properly; however, we get in trouble when we overdue it and the body shifts toward catabolism and degeneration. Like most things in life, it’s all about balance. So, it is vitally important to identify what types of stresses are out of balance in your life, and address this before the body reacts negatively. The primary stressors of life can be broken into 6 categories: (Chek, 2004)

  1.  Physical stress
  2.  Chemical stress
  3.  Electromagnetic stress
  4.  Psychic or mental stress
  5.  Nutritional stress, and
  6.  Thermal stress

The body interprets each one of these stresses in the same manner because the body’s response is controlled involuntarily through the autonomic nervous system. This means that stress summates in the body, so if you have too much stress coming from one or more categories, the levels will cumulatively build into an imbalance. The highest stress category should be prioritized and addressed first, followed by second, third, etc. Regardless of how well you control your food environment, prolonged stress will cause problems in the long run.


Intestinal Permeability 

                  Prolonged, uncontrolled stress is the number one irritant to the gut lining.  If we are under too much stress and cannot control it, the small intestinal microvilli lining will open up gap junctions (intestinal permeability), which will allow food particles to enter the general circulation. This problem can increase the likelihood of a dysbiosis (good to bad bacteria ratio imbalance) through the process of bacterial translocation. Intestinal permeability is also the primary reason for large food particles getting into the circulation, which is the beginning of autoimmune reactions, food intolerances, and other problems. Check out my video on Leaky Gut Syndrome for more. 



Peace Points:  A peace point is a time in the day that you set aside for peace and relaxation. This mini break time can be used for connecting with your food. One of the best things and individual can do is set up a peace point during eating times. This will shift the body into a parasympathetic state and aid in the digestive process.

Connect with your food: The body is biologically triggered by food, and our sensory perceptions are highly interconnected with the process of eating. So take the time to have a connection with your food. A great way to be present with your food is to eat with your hands. This will provide a wonderful connection and give you the opportunity to listen to your body and understand satiation. If you’re not ready for that step, you can use your utensils with the opposite hand.

Don’t watch TV while you eat: Television can put people into an entangled hypnotic state that takes away conscious choice. This can be detrimental for making healthy choices and understanding how much is actually being eaten. Furthermore, most television is highly stimulating to the SNS causing a stress response that is not conducive to digestion. If you can make healthy choices, then usually comedies and other relaxing shows will be all right. The Walking Dead does not really work, trust me.

Schedule Family Meals: Family meals are excellent opportunities for the family to connect with food and each other. Building healthy eating habits together will facilitate long-term health.

Posture: You should always strive to eat with an upright posture with good spinal alignment.

Don’t eat or drink calories during acute exercise: Working out will stimulate the SNS and shuttle blood away from the digestive organs. Eating at this time is counteractive to human physiology. Don’t drink protein shakes or Gatorade during exercise. You can just as easily balance your electrolytes with a pinch of sea salt if that is a concern.   



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             in its relationship to clinical medicine. St. Louis, MO: Mosby Company / Forgotten


Shanahan, C., Shanahan, L. (2009). Deep nutrition: why your genes need traditional food.

             Lawai, HI: Big Box Books. 

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