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Why You Need to “Rest and Digest”

Have you ever heard the term “rest and digest?” It refers to the state in which your body is able to do exactly that – rest and digest.

Your autonomic system has two systems: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system. Together, these two systems control the internal body processes like heart rate, breathing, digestion and metabolism. The autonomic system determines whether your body will either survive or thrive, because depending on which branch of the system is running, different things are happening.

When you are in survival mode (often known as fight or flight), your sympathetic nervous system is in charge. All too often, individuals function in this state, which means their heart rate spikes, digestion slows down and adrenaline is pumping through their system. Being in a sympathetic state is a good thing if you are being chased by a bear, but not a great thing if you are trying to digest a meal!

The sympathetic nervous system is a great survival instinct. If you were in fact being chased by a bear, it would be important to have as much adrenaline as possible to run as fast as you possibly could. But, to the body, stress is stress. So, your body cannot differentiate between the stress of being chased by a bear or stress about an upcoming meeting.

In order for our digestive system to properly function, we need to activate our parasympathetic (otherwise known as our “rest and digest”) system!

Your parasympathetic system lowers your heart rate, promotes digestion and eliminates waste from your body. With more time resting and digesting, you will have a better stress response, better digestion and improvement in constipation and bloat!

One of the ways in which you can activate this “rest and digest” system is through sleeping. When you get quality sleep and your body is able to rest, you can better digest. Establish a bedtime and bedtime routine, so you can assist your brain in decreasing your stress response and activate your “rest and digest” system!

Personally, when my digestive issues were at their peak I was not prioritizing sleep. I believed that I didn’t have time to sleep because I was so busy. I was in grad school, working full-time and ultra-stressed. Often, I would sacrifice sleep for an early morning workout or to stay up late working on an assignment. At the time, I didn’t realize how much my stress and lack of sleep made my bloat and constipation even worse! Sadly, for a long time, I had it all wrong. I thought I needed to work out more intensely to “beat the bloat,” or that I needed to focus more on what I was eating. It didn’t click with me until I learned about the autonomic nervous system and realized my “high stress” lifestyle was one of my biggest triggers.

Now, sleep is a non-negotiable for me. When I sleep 7-8 hours at night, my digestion is better, my energy improves and my focus throughout the day allows me to be more productive.

In the past, I didn’t realize that my body was so overly stressed to where it was never able to digest. I was making the problem worse by taking away simple strategies like sleeping enough, because I thought I didn’t have time. By prioritizing sleep and actually skipping morning workouts to catch some z’s, my digestion improved and my symptoms improved.

As I mentioned earlier, one thing I recommend to improve sleep is coming up with a simple bedtime routine and a bedtime. Pick a routine like brushing your teeth, washing your face and spraying your favorite lavender pillow spray to help cue your brain that it is time for sleep. And, if possible, try to keep your bedtime about the same each night. This routine can do wonders for your “rest and digest” system and improve your bloat and constipation.


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Hi, I’m Dr. Heather

Registered dietitian and helps people struggling with bloating, constipation, and IBS find relief from their symptoms and feel excited about food again.

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Dr. Heather Finley