If you’re one of the many millions of people who suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), you’ve probably tried all sorts of food combinations and exclusions to get to the root of your tummy troubles.
While what you eat is, of course, important when it comes to IBS, considering how you eat is vital too. It’s also really important to manage your general stress levels, including in relation to eating, as stress is a known trigger for IBS.
In our hyper-connected modern world, we’re often flooding our system with the stress hormone cortisol. While a bit of cortisol isn’t necessarily a bad thing, living constantly in 'fight or flight' mode rather than allowing our bodies to get into a 'rest or digest' state isn’t great for us – or our digestion.
Putting in place some tools and techniques to manage stress, such as meditation and mindful eating, can therefore be helpful if you've tried other ways to ease the symptoms of IBS.
Eating slowly benefits
Your digestion starts before you put any food in your mouth. Looking at food, breathing in its aromas and even just thinking about a delicious meal is said to kick off the cephalic phase of digestion. This stimulates areas of the brain that activate your parasympathetic, or 'rest and digest, system.
It’s one of the reasons why taking a little time over food is particularly important if you have digestive troubles. If you’re rushing into things, you’re not giving your body the chance to digest food properly. And this is where eating more mindfully comes into play.
Many of the studies connected to meditation and IBS have tended to look at wider programmes of mindfulness or meditation, rather than mindful eating specifically (1). However, they have indicated that employing mindfulness techniques can help with managing symptoms of digestion issues like IBS. Official guidance from the National Institute for Health Care and Excellence, based on reviews of clinical evidence, also recommends taking time to eat without rushing (2).
As a fellow IBS sufferer, I know firsthand how challenging and stressful it can be to eat when you’re not sure how your body will react. Using mindful eating as a meditation can help manage your meal-time stress – and the side benefit is that it makes eating a lot more pleasurable too!
Mindful eating techniques and benefits
Mindful eating is not something new. It’s actually part of ancient Buddhist traditions and has been incorporated into modern secular mindfulness programmes. There are many ways to learn, practice and exercise mindful eating today so you can start to reap the benefits.
So often we eat in a distracted state (i.e. sitting at our laptops over lunch) or rush into our first mouthful while already loading the next one on to our fork. It is another form of disconnection with our bodies – and listening to your body is really important in managing something like IBS.
Mindful eating is in contrast about slowing down, becoming more connected and using something we need to every day, eat, as another form of meditation. Technically it is supposed to be a non-judgemental experience, but I personally like to ruminate on the pleasure of eating this way.
You can try it is as a full meditation, as below, or just take a few elements to explore. As with all meditation, mindful eating doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
You can set aside a specific meal to savour in full and quiet focus, or you could try it over a cup of tea. Or maybe just one fully considered mouthful. Mindful eating can even be applied in the preparation of your food, but certainly, it should start before you take your first bite.
Mindful eating meditation
1. Sit somewhere quiet and relaxing, without distractions. Start by taking a few breaths in and out through your nose to get settled and focussed.
2. Take a little time to look at the food in front of you, considering its colours, textures and anything else you can see. You might want to pick up a little piece of food and observe how it feels in your fingers (though not if it’s soup!). Lift a small amount to your nose and breathe in, really enjoying the aromas.
3. Take a small mouthful, putting your cutlery down if you’re using any, and chew slowly giving it your full attention. Notice how it feels in your mouth, flavours that develop and flavours left behind. Sit with this for a moment or two before taking your next mouthful.
4. Repeat this, slowly, for the rest of your meal. And if you can, sit for a minute in quiet at the end enjoying the sensation of slow.
If you've tried other forms of meditation and found it difficult to focus, mindful eating is another option to help you develop a better sense of being grounded in the moment. Some people find, for example, that breathing meditations are quite difficult to connect with. The external sensory experience of eating can make it easier to stay focused, especially as eating is one of the few times we genuinely use all of our senses. If you're new to meditation, start by working through the senses for your first bite of food and then gradually extend the length of time you practice this for. And for a completely different experience, you could even try this over a shared meal with other people.
Start to enjoy the time you carve out for yourself when it comes to your meals – you may be surprised by how good you feel afterward and how relaxed your tummy feels.
To save these helpful tips, Pin This!
1. Gaylord et al, Mindfulness training reduces the severity of irritable bowel syndrome in women: results of a randomized controlled trial, The American Journal of Gastroenterology volume 106, pages 1678–1688 (2011)
2. National Institute for Health Care and Excellence: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg61