I spent a recent weekend at a retreat where naturopathic doctors assembled to discuss the philosophy of the medicine we practice. One of the overarching themes of the weekend could be summed up as “Physician heal thyself”, or the necessity of healing and caring for yourself first so that you can better serve those who come to you seeking healing. As a side note, this concept applies to everyone who cares for or serves others in some way: teachers, parents, restaurant servers, etc. This can be as simple as making time each day to eat healthy food, exercise, sleep and spend time with loved ones. Or it can be as complex as delving into your flaws and biases and doing your best to become aware of them and address them so they don’t negatively influence your ability to help others. If you don't take time for self-care, it's so easy to get burned out. This is such an important conversation to have in the field of health care.
While at this retreat, I noticed a pattern that I have noticed many times before. I slept in a tent for two nights and woke refreshed. I ate the delicious food that was provided for us while sitting outside in a beautiful place. Meals were enjoyed with warm and kind people over inspiring discussions. I felt such gratitude at each meal for the food and the sense of community. Between the meals and the discussions and lectures, I walked in the forest. And this is what I noticed. My digestion improved dramatically for those two days.
Then I went back to the city and my normal schedule, and while I was still eating healthy food, I found myself eating more snacks during moments of boredom while doing things like filling out paperwork. I ate two out of three meals alone most days since I work from home when not seeing patients and my partner leaves early for work. I was indoors most of the time, and though I try to avoid this, I would sometimes check email or read while eating. And instantly my digestion became somewhat disturbed again. Nothing serious, but food didn’t sit quite right. I felt a little bloated after meals.
This is such a common pattern that I have observed countless times in my patients and myself. In many ways, how we eat is as important as what we eat. When we eat hurriedly, or while distracted, inside, alone; when we don’t chew thoroughly; when we don’t stop to appreciate our food. When these things are true, we don’t fully digest the food we eat. This means that we extract less nutrition from it, and our friendly gut bacteria get ahold whatever is left and ferment it causing gas and bloating.
It’s not always possible to eat with friends or family, or eat outside. When that is the case, I encourage you to pause before you start eating, take 10 belly breaths and spend a moment seeing if you can feel some authentic gratitude for the food you are about to eat. This actually helps flip the switch in your nervous system to “rest and digest” mode, which allows you to more completely digest the food you eat. But more foundationally, I encourage you to consider the way you structure your life, and whether it allows you to regularly eat meals with friends and family or eat outside. Where could you potentially simplify your life and make more space for these types of essential acts? And what do you notice about your digestion when you are distracted and hurried during meals versus when you are relaxed, grateful and surrounded by loved ones?
Wishing you health,
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