Almost 70% of adults in America are considered overweight, and 35% are classified as obese. If rates continue, and many experts believe they will, 75% of the population will be either overweight or obese by the year 2020. Anyone who glances at the statistics knows something is clearly not right. What could be causing this sharp rise in weight-related issues?
One of the main reasons we have such a concern with obesity and digestive complaints in the world today is that people are not eating their meals in a parasympathetic state.  It turns out that it's not just what you eat, but how, when, and where you eat that makes a difference. While hardly anyone is mentioning this root cause to common weight issues, it is a topic that is nevertheless important to discuss in order to tackle one of the world's leading health concerns.
Eating in the Sympathetic State
Before getting into what the parasympathetic state actually is and how it can benefit your weight and digestion, let's quickly examine its opposite – the sympathetic state. This state is associated with the "fight or flight" response and is usually activated within the central nervous system in response to stressful situations. Environmental stress brought on by something negative in the news, a violent movie, a heated argument, or general day-to-day happenings can activate this state.
When this activation occurs, the body releases adrenaline into the bloodstream, cortisol increases (fat-storing hormone), and digestion stops completely. The body is literally ready to fight the situation or run from it, and it has little time for digesting food. Many people are eating in this sympathetic, nervous state, and it's seriously hindering their digestion and weight loss efforts.  Here are some examples of what can bring about a sympathetic state during eating:
- Eating while watching the TV, especially the news
- Eating while driving
- Eating at your desk at work
- Eating after a stressful work situation
- Eating while talking on the phone
- Eating while arguing with someone
- Eating fast because you are late for work, school, appointment, etc.
- Eating in a loud fast food restaurant
- Eating at a sporting event
- Eating while on stimulant prescription drugs
- Eating while depressed or anxious
Sound like you or someone you know? The trouble is, many people are in a constant sympathetic state these days because they have never learned simple ways to manage stress. Eating in a parasympathetic state is perhaps the best way to consume any type of food in order to promote proper digestion and weight loss. Luckily, there are many simple techniques you can do to enter this state quickly and easily.
What is the Parasympathetic State?
The parasympathetic state is the direct opposite of the sympathetic state and occurs when the body and mind are completely relaxed. In this state, digestion occurs and the body works to heal wounds and repair cells and tissues. With proper digestion comes proper absorption of nutrients, leading to improved energy and metabolism. In order to get into this relaxed state, you must turn off the TV, radio, and other electronics that may cause unnecessary noise or mental stress. Feel free to talk with your family at the dinner table about the things that went well during the day, and speak about pleasant things, ideas, and situations that have occurred.
One way to get into the parasympathetic state easily and quickly while eating is to use simple breathing exercises. These don't have to be long and drawn out; in fact, a simple one-minute breathing exercise is all that is really needed to relax your mind and body in preparation for eating. Take nine deep breaths in through your nose and exhale each breath slowly through your mouth. Do this until you feel you are completely relaxed and at ease. This should aid your digestive process and possibly decrease fat-storage hormones, like cortisol. Do you have specific rituals you perform before eating that help you relax and unwind? We’d love to hear about them!
- Arone LJ, Mackintosh R, Rosenbaum M, Leibel RL, Hirsch J. Autonomic nervous system activity in weight gain and weight loss. American Journal of Physiology. 1995 July;269(1 Pt 2):R222-5.
- Tentolouris N, Liatis S, Katsilambros N. Sympathetic system activity in obesity and metabolic syndrome. Annal of the New York Academy of Sciences. 2006 November;1083:129-52.
†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.