The ‘Rest and Digest’ System Is Key for Gut Health


Digestive health is often taken for granted, but chronic stress, irregular meal patterns, and over-restriction can lead to unpleasant gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms and interfere with your nutrition.

Your digestive tract works hard for you every day, breaking down food you eat so that your body can properly absorb the nutrients it needs. Proactively supporting your digestion by adopting certain lifestyle and dietary practices can help take the stress out of meal times and allow your body to feel and function at its best.

As a registered dietitian specializing in gastrointestinal health, here are a few of my top tips for making peace with food and improving your digestion, starting today.


Experts In This Article

  • Rachel Dyckman, MS, RDN, CDN1, Rachel Dyckman is a New York City-based Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. Rachel works with clients on science-backed dietary strategies to optimize their health and wellness.

How to tap into your ‘rest and digest’ system for gut, mental, and overall health

Take the stress out of mealtimes

Eating while on-the-go (meaning when rushed or distracted) is necessary on occasion, but doing so daily can wreak havoc on your digestion, especially if done consistently over time. Research published in the journal Integrative Medicine in 2019 explains that eating while we’re stressed activates the sympathetic nervous system, also known as “fight-or-flight” mode. This causes blood to be diverted towards our arms and legs and away from our digestive organs, ultimately impairing digestion.

According to the Integrative Medicine research, when certain stress hormones like cortisol are chronically elevated, we aren’t able to break down food and absorb nutrients as well. Further, these high stress hormone levels make us more likely to experience abdominal pain and increased inflammation in the body.

Although easier said than done, to encourage your body to enter parasympathetic “rest-and-digest” mode, try to eat in a calm environment away from distractions. That means avoiding things like scrolling on your phone, checking emails, or watching TV during mealtimes.

Practicing deep breathing before meals and in between bites of food can also help to stimulate a nerve involved in digestion, called the vagus nerve. By stimulating the vagus nerve, our body’s relaxation response is activated, setting us up for optimal digestion. To most effectively achieve this relaxation response from your nervous system, try holding your exhalations slightly longer than your inhalations.

According to the Integrative Medicine research, when certain stress hormones like cortisol are chronically elevated, we aren’t able to break down food and absorb nutrients as well. Further, these high stress hormone levels make us more likely to experience abdominal pain and increased inflammation in the body.

Notice the aromas, flavors, and textures of your food while eating

In today’s go-go world, many people view food simply as fuel rather than as a source of pleasure, but scarfing down your lunch without focusing on how it tastes, smells, or feels in your mouth can actually affect how well your body is able to digest it.

According to research published in the journal Advances in Nutrition in 2020, the sensory aspects of food (think: flavors, aromas, and textures) aid in the first phase of digestion, called the cephalic phase. When we pay special attention to use all of our senses during a meal, the release of digestive enzymes, bile, and gastric juices are stimulated to help break down food properly. In addition to aiding digestion, taking time to focus on your enjoyment of food is likely to make it more satisfying.

Practice tuning into your body’s hunger and fullness cues

Ignoring your body’s cues surrounding when and how much to eat can lead to irregular meal patterns, but our digestive tract operates best when we listen to our body and eat regularly throughout the day. Going too long without food can cause low blood sugar, making us more likely to eat past fullness at our next meal. This may lead to reflux, nausea, bloating, and abdominal pain. Skipping meals may also trigger our body’s stress response, spiking cortisol and interfering with our ability to “rest and digest.”

Checking in with your innate hunger and fullness cues throughout the day and during meals helps to guide you so you know when to start and stop eating, avoiding both the negative effects of under-eating, as well as becoming uncomfortably full. We’re all born with hunger and fullness cues, but over time, we often become out of touch with what our body is trying to tell us. Many of us are unintentionally conditioned to ignore our body’s natural cues as we grow up. For example, as a child you may have been rewarded with dessert after eating your vegetables, or told you couldn’t leave the dinner table unless you cleaned your plate. Although well-meaning, these assertions teach us to ignore how we feel.

To help tap into your hunger and fullness signals, try assigning a number to your fullness level, on a scale of one to 10. Ideally, we want to avoid falling on either extreme end of the scale to prevent GI distress.

Ditch the food rules

Sometimes restriction of specific foods or ingredients is necessary for a medical reason, such as a food allergy or intolerance. That said, with the pervasiveness of diet culture in today’s society, dieting and disordered eating are on the rise.

Over time, disordered eating patterns and following an overly restrictive diet can really take its toll on our digestion and gut health. According to a study published in the journal Nutrition Issues in Gastroenterology in 2022, restricted food intake can lead to gut dysbiosis, essentially starving off some of your good gut bacteria and lowering the overall diversity of healthy microbes living in the gut.

When we pay special attention to use all of our senses during a meal, the release of digestive enzymes, bile, and gastric juices are stimulated to help break down food properly. In addition to aiding digestion, taking time to focus on your enjoyment of food is likely to make it more satisfying.

Overly restricting your food intake may also slow down gut motility, so it takes longer for food to move through the GI tract, as outlined in the study. This sluggish motility can lead to unpleasant symptoms like abdominal discomfort, nausea, and bloating. Further, by eating a limited diet, you might not be providing your body with all of the nutrients it needs to function optimally.

If you’re struggling with over-restriction, it’s helpful to work with a registered dietitian to evaluate whether or not your dietary restrictions are medically necessary. Dietitians can work with you to help repair your relationship with food, and in turn, improve your digestion.


Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.

  1. Cherpak, Christine E. “Mindful Eating: A Review Of How The Stress-Digestion-Mindfulness Triad May Modulate And Improve Gastrointestinal And Digestive Function.” Integrative medicine (Encinitas, Calif.) vol. 18,4 (2019): 48-53.
  2. Gerritsen, Roderik J S, and Guido P H Band. “Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity.” Frontiers in human neuroscience vol. 12 397. 9 Oct. 2018, doi:10.3389/fnhum.2018.00397
  3. Lasschuijt, Marlou P et al. “Endocrine Cephalic Phase Responses to Food Cues: A Systematic Review.” Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.) vol. 11,5 (2020): 1364-1383. doi:10.1093/advances/nmaa059
  4. Witbracht, Megan et al. “Female breakfast skippers display a disrupted cortisol rhythm and elevated blood pressure.” Physiology & behavior vol. 140 (2015): 215-21. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2014.12.044
  5. Galmiche, Marie et al. “Prevalence of eating disorders over the 2000-2018 period: a systematic literature review.” The American journal of clinical nutrition vol. 109,5 (2019): 1402-1413. doi:10.1093/ajcn/nqy342




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