This worked so well for so many millennia that it is still in operation today. It is commonly referred to, logically, as the fight or flight response, and it works a treat when it’s helpful to us; think sprinting for the line in a race, giving an impromptu speech, landing a Boeing in the Hudson.
So while we are sprinting, landing or speaking under duress, a system that requires a lot of energy, namely our digestive system, is switched off.
This is not a problem while the acute situation is only temporary. Normally the sprint is over in a matter of seconds, the speech in a few minutes and the landing a little longer, after which the digestive system heaves a sigh of relief and kicks back into gear.
It is a big problem, however, when we live the majority of our lives in fight or flight mode, and more of us are doing this than we might realise. The volume of digestive aid and antacid medications now found freely available in the supermarket medicines aisle, where these were once only available after a medical appointment and trip to the pharmacy, suggests that unhappy stomachs are a very common problem.
Certainly, some of the issues with indigestion are due very simply to poor dietary choices and overeating; packaged food is designed to hold its colour, shape and “mouth feel” while it sits on the supermarket shelf, and nutrition and digestibility are minor considerations if at all.
However indigestion in all its forms can strike regardless of food quality, because of the fundamental design of the fight or flight system. This means that if you are stressed, or eat in situations that convince your body that you are (breakfasting while driving to work, lunching at the work desk, eating dinner while watching the news or arguing with a partner or the kids) you are in fact directly instructing your digestive system to stop working, and you should not be surprised when it gives you grief.
There are options here; stop being stressed, or don’t eat a heavy meal when you are. For some people only eating when they’re not stressed means they wouldn’t eat ever. They have a lot of work to do.
But for most of us, simply realising that it takes energy and concentration to digest food might help us to choose how we go about eating, and we might find that we don’t have an over-acidity problem after all. Understand this: simply quelling the acid is like shooting the messenger; most people have reflux not because they make too much acid but because their digestive system is under functioning due to stress, so they produce too little digestive juice in general. Consequently food remains too long in the stomach, half mixed with acid, which then refluxes upwards instead of moving smoothly downwards to the next part of the digestive process.
Digestive juices, and the muscular pulses required to mix them thoroughly with the stomach contents, are blocked by tension, stress, anger, fear and every other negative emotion. They are stimulated by a relaxed state of being, plus delicious aromas, an attractive and colourful display on the plate, a variety of stimulating flavours including some sour and bitter, and taking the time to chew. It is a binary choice: fight and flight, or rest and digest; the two systems cannot work simultaneously.
So if you find yourself in the midst of an argument over dinner, put down your forks, have the argument and resolve the issue, then when everyone is calm reheat the dinner and start again. Switch off the TV, or if you need it for company at least choose something non-threatening to watch.
If you don’t think you have time for breakfast before getting in the car, set the alarm half an hour earlier in future (which might mean going to bed half an hour earlier the night before…and there’s another story) and make time to fuel yourself properly for the day’s activities. Stop work at lunchtime, ideally go outside or at least find a change of venue, and concentrate on what you are eating, not on the latest figures or the deadline. Put a small amount of effort into making your food attractive and tasty and pay attention to it before you start wolfing it down.
Show some respect for the miraculous process that turns everything you eat into your muscles, skin, blood and everything else. Slow down, breathe, chew, and let it do its work. Fight and flight; rest and digest. Your choice.