Chewing is automatic for most adults, like breathing or brushing our teeth.
Have you ever chewed so quickly or mindlessly that you gave yourself indigestion or accidentally crunched into your inner cheek and got an ulcer? Research has consistently shown that simply eating slowly or chewing more not only improves digestion but can also lead to calmer thoughts, better sleep and better mental health.
Chewing is the first step for proper digestion and absorption of nutrients
The more we chew (masticate), the more saliva we make. Human saliva is a cocktail of digestive enzymes, antibacterial compounds, mucus and water. Saliva liquefies food and prepares each bite for the long journey through our digestive tract, which can be up to 30 ft. long for adults. That’s quite a voyage for each bite, so preparation is crucial.
More chewing and salivary secretions give our digestive system less work to do once we’ve swallowed. When we chew, we tell the stomach to release a potent mixture of enzymes and gastric acid for protein and carbohydrate breakdown.
Why this matters to the nervous system
Under-chewed food, low stomach acid, and low antibacterial saliva can result in large undigested and unabsorbable particles and bacteria reaching the small intestines. This is where most nutrient absorption should happen, but inflammatory immune responses can also happen here if food is left sitting around and the gut barrier isn’t tight enough to keep unwanted products out of our bloodstream. Common signs of poorly digested food include fermentation, heartburn, bloating, excess wind, headaches or more complicated neurodegenerative conditions over the long term.
Proteins from whole food must be broken down into amino acids for mood and sleep hormone production. We need glycine, taurine, tyrosine and tryptophan building blocks to form the cells in our brain and central nervous system (CNS). Tryptophan is found in our happiness hormone, serotonin, and our sleep hormone, melatonin. Regularly finding undigested foods in the stool can be a classic sign of poor nutrient absorption and CNS distress.
In a study of 4135 adults from 20 countries, the Dental Research Journal showed that ‘masticatory ability’ and salivary flow rate were associated with a lowered risk of depression, stress and anxiety. Our CNS development depends on our absorption of Omega 3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and cofactor minerals including zinc and magnesium. A ‘good’ diet deserves good mastication!
What about chewing gum?
Studies on the benefits of chewing gum have seen improved blood flow to brain regions responsible for alertness and attention. This has more to do with the act of chewing than the gum. Contrary to popular belief that it increases appetite, stress and hunger, most evidence shows that gum chewing has an anti-anxiety effect on the brain. Still, the key is in how often. Chewing gum can worsen headaches in some people, or cause air swallowing (aerophagia) and bloating for others.
So, how many times should we chew our food before we swallow?
It depends on what we eat, but the general rule is until the food has somewhat liquefied. If we had to put a number on it, with an average meal of mixed textures, the most clinically trialled rate for therapeutic effect is 30 chews per bite. The problem is that many of us are too lusty for food to even think about chewing this much, understandably.
One of the other goals of eating this slowly is that we give our brains the time to finally hear the hormone, leptin, telling us that our appetite has gone down. It takes about 20 minutes from the time we start eating for our brain to send out signals of fullness or ‘gastric satiety’ so that we don’t put too much stress on our digestive system.
How to chew with more intention
These are the sort of tips I don’t enjoy telling clients because they seem obvious, but the small things are often the cheapest and most overlooked. They set the necessary foundation for the bigger things…
- Put your knife, spoon, fork or chopsticks down between each bite.
- Finish chewing and swallowing before taking another bite.
- Eat away from your phone, TV, iPad or laptop. This is often one of the hardest ones to commit to. Multi-tasking is one of our greatest strengths as humans, which makes it so easy for us to go against this.
- Use your five senses with each mouthful. Actively think about the smell, texture, flavour and colour of the food - even how it sounds when you chew.
- Simply try taking smaller bites.
The bottom line is that eating slowly probably won’t solve all of our nervous system or digestive issues but sometimes it’s worth asking ourselves whether we chew enough. We all know that chewing matters to our digestive system but there is strong evidence suggesting it can also improve our stress-coping ability, mood and clarity of thought.
You don’t have to go on a silent retreat to experience chewing as an opportunity to live with intention - bet you haven’t heard chewing described as an ‘opportunity’ many times before! If you come from a family like Ross in Friends where the mealtime mantra is, “if you didn’t eat fast, you didn’t eat”, it might be time for a change!
Jane Aquino is a registered nutritional therapist and anxiety/sleep specialist. Working in nervous system support, she loves helping people living with anxiety, IBS, anaemia and sleep problems. She helps her clients master nutrition to regain calm, confidence and creativity with simple tailored steps. She sees clients both online and in-person at her London clinic. You can find out about her Mind Balance services at www.janeaquino.com, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org, or say hello via Instagram @mindnutritionist!