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  • Karen Haralson

Breaking Down Digestion

#1 - Before You Start Eating

The Cephalic phase is the first of four phases of digestion, starting when we anticipate eating and ending as food reaches the stomach. Digestion, or the breakdown and usage of food, is vitally important in obtaining energy, repairing tissues, and growing. Cephalo- comes from the Greek word kephalḗ, meaning “head.” In this phase, we will notice and learn tools to enhance how our eating rituals play a huge part in our body’s preparation to use the food we eat. A few simple actions will go a long way in preventing future digestive ailments.

Before eating your next meal, I invite you to pause. First, get to know your food through your senses. What is the smell of your food? Are the aromas savory like a peppered steak, as sweet as baked cookies, or fruity as in juicy pineapple? Do the colors look bright as in steamed broccoli or appear darker like the beans in chili? Is your food as soft as a ripe banana, crunchy like fresh celery, or dry and crunchy like a grain cracker? Do you have any memories of the food you are about to eat? One might think of eating cool, crisp watermelon on a hot day. Are you beginning to salivate?

Next, give thanks. Thanks can be a religious prayer practice or gratitude for the food itself or perhaps a simple deep breath to relax from your busy day. In slowing down your mind and body, you have become more conscious, or present-minded. At this point, feel any reactions you have in your mouth, stomach, or in an impulse to eat.

If you’ve made it this far without eating, congratulations. You have just awarded yourself time to stimulate the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain stem to the lower part of your intestine, or colon. The vagus nerve, a key part of the ‘rest and digest’ response system in your body, stimulates many functions in digestion:

1. It triggers stomach acid secretion and intestinal contractions, which thereby help with elimination.

2. This nerve also tells your pancreas, liver, and gallbladder to assist in chemical reactions needed for food breakdown.

3. Saliva production is facilitated as well by the vagus nerve. Saliva helps break down carbohydrates and fats.

4. It is also assisting in dilating your blood vessels, protecting your teeth from decay, maintaining pH balance, and killing off harmful pathogens.

In slowing down, you have played a role in warming up your body to eat. You have encouraged the process of secreting key chemicals, breaking down and absorbing food, and eliminating unused portions. All of this occurs before you put the bite in your mouth, which is made possible by the vagus nerve.

Now that you’ve used your senses to ingest your food and given yourself time to activate the vagus nerve, finally, take a well-deserved bite of your food. Chew this bite very well. Try 40 or 50 times. If you ate a whole meal chewing this many times, what do you think it would feel like?

When you mechanically break down food with your teeth you are making it easier for your body to process these smaller and smaller pieces using enzymes in your mouth. You are saving yourself energy. By allowing your body to get ready to eat and chewing your food well you will save energy for functions such as focus and alertness.

As your well-chewed, liquified, air-reduced, and softened food makes its way down the esophagus, your stomach is getting ready to open and allow in the food. This is where the Cephalic phase of digestion ends.

This article taught you about the first part of digestion and a few simple actions you can do to influence the process. Ideas discussed were:

1. Slowing down and tuning in to each of your senses.

2. Noticing how it feels in your mind and body to slow down before eating.

3. Saying thanks.

4. Chewing food well.

Practicing these small actions now can make a significant difference in your future digestion and health.

Robin Fillner, RN, BSN is passionate about wellness and being outside. She is a health writer and oncology nurse at Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital. She is also a Certified Functional Nutrition Counselor through the Functional Nutrition Alliance. Find her at:


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