Mind over lunch: Using the gut in your brain to boost digestion

It seems every day we are learning more and more about how our gut, commonly referred to now as our “second brain”, communicates with our brain, influencing our mood, our mental health, and more.

But what’s still not getting a lot of attention is the reverse, what I call the “second gut”: the gut that’s in your brain. I’m talking about the influence your mind has on digestion and nutrient assimilation, and consequently on your hunger, cravings, and overall relationship with food.

So in honor of Mindfulness Day, September 12, I want to share with you how your brain affects digestion, and how you can use that to your advantage.

Attention and the Cephalic Phase Digestive Response (the CPDR)

If you’re like most people, you don’t give too much thought to eating. In fact, you’re probably engaged in some other activity while “eating on the side”.

If this is you, then you are missing out.

Research estimates that 30-40% of our digestive capacity comes from paying attention.[1] Digestion actually starts in your brain. Your Cephalic Phase Digestive Response (CPDR, where cephalic means “of your head”) combines catalogued information about the food you are eating with input from chemical receptors on the tongue and in the oral cavity to prime your digestive system for what’s coming. The CPDR initiates secretion of digestive enzymes needed to handle the incoming food.

If your attention is elsewhere while you eat, that is, if you are multitasking, you’re not fully engaging your CPDR, which means your digestion is operating at about 60-70% of capacity. Your body will not absorb nutrients as efficiently, which can lead to increased hunger and cravings, as your body tries to get the nutrients it needs.

In addition, hunger later on is influenced by our perception and experience of what we ate.[2] Experimental evidence suggests that people’s hunger levels are better predicted by their memory of how much food they ate rather than by how much they’d actually eaten.  But if you aren’t paying attention when you eat, you won’t remember.

In other words, by paying attention – by being present and mindful when you eat – you will digest and assimilate nutrients more efficiently, and your appetite will be satisfied.

Your thoughts influence digestion too!

What kinds of thoughts, beliefs, and emotions do you bring to the table?

Your mind is extremely powerful. Your thoughts create your experience, including your eating experience. And your thoughts influence digestion.

If you are thinking stressful thoughts while you eat, whether it’s because you choose to discuss the day’s challenges or the news, or because you have an embattled relationship with food such that the very act of eating brings up thoughts like “This food will make me fat,” “I shouldn’t be eating this,” “I wish I didn’t have to eat at all,” “I hate this bland diet food,” your digestion will be impacted.

Think of stress and digestive power as being in opposition: the more stressed you are, the weaker your digestion will be. By thinking negative thoughts that trigger stress in your body, digestion and nutrient absorption are diminished.

Enter the skeptic: but there can’t be all that much of an effect here, right?

Well, think about the placebo effect. It’s estimated that 35-45% of all prescription drugs may owe their effectiveness to the placebo effect, and the percentage is even higher for over-the-counter medications.[3] In one very powerful study [4], subjects given a placebo but told they were testing a new chemotherapy treatment actually experienced hair loss. To quote Marc David [1: p. 125]

“If the power of the mind is strong enough to make our hair fall out when taking a placebo, what do you think happens when we think to ourselves: ‘This cake is fattening’?”

You’ve probably heard of the mind’s ability to heal the body. Why is it so far-fetched to acknowledge the mind’s ability to empower digestion?

So next time you sit down to eat a meal, be mindful of the experience and think positively about how the food is going to nourish and energize your body. Perhaps say a prayer or grace or give thanks for the food that is before you. After all, thoughts of gratitude and appreciation will help you relax and put you into the state for optimal digestion and nutrient assimilation. I doubt that’s the original intention of saying grace before a meal, but if doing so can have that effect, why not?


[1] David, Marc, 2005, “The Slow Down Diet: Eating for Pleasure, Energy, and Weight Loss”. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press. 

[2] Brunstrom, Burn, Sell, Collingwood, Rogers, Wilkinson, Hinton, Maynard, Ferriday, 2012. “Episodic Memory and Appetite Regulation in Humans”. PLOS ONE, December 5, 2012.

[3] “Placebo—The Hidden Asset in Healing”, in Investigations. Institute of Noetic Sciences Research Bulletin 2, no. 14. 1985.

[4] Fielding, J.W., 1983. “Adjunct Chemotherapy in Operable Gastric Cancer,” World Journal of Surgery 7, no. 3.