Thanksgiving is right around the corner, and I just love the spicy-sweet scent of cinnamon, the sound of crisp leaves under my feet, and the warmth of the season’s first crackling fire in a wood stove.
What does the word Thanksgiving conjure up in your mind? Maybe it’s turkeys, pilgrims, and pumpkin pies, or perhaps the word elicits stress as you imagine how much cooking you have ahead for you gigantic family. Either way, Thanksgiving isn’t just a holiday, but a concept that we need to put into daily practice.
Thanksgiving Is Good for Your Health
The media often portrays Thanksgiving as an unhealthy holiday, and indeed, many Americans spend it over-indulging in less-than-desirable foods. But have you ever considered that Thanksgiving can be a healthy holiday? In fact, giving thanks might just be one of the most beneficial things that we can do on a daily basis to improve overall health and happiness.
Obviously this doesn’t mean cooking a turkey feast every day, but rather, to give thanks and express gratitude on a regular basis. Research demonstrates an array of positive health benefits that result from a regular practice of gratitude, including but not limited to: (1)
- Stress reduction
- Improved digestive function
- Decreased blood pressure
- Improved immunity
3 Ways Thanksgiving Can Make Your Life Better
Being grateful isn’t only applicable during the holiday season. It has lasting benefits that can extend all year round, and regularly practicing gratitude can dramatically improve your quality of life.
1. Want What You Already Have
Dr. Robert Emmons is a Professor at UC Davis who has been studying the science of gratitude for over a decade. He explains how the regular practice of gratitude increases energy levels, improves sleep quality, decreases pain levels, increases time spent exercising, improves interpersonal relationships, and can increase happiness levels by as much as 25 percent in only three weeks.
His research found that writing in a gratitude journal for a couple of hours over the course of three weeks can create lasting positive effects for up to six months. And gratitude isn’t just for the sick or depressed, although research has proven gratitude to be effective in the treatment of depression, anger management, and several illnesses.
Professor Emmons explains that the practice of gratitude is suited for highly functioning individuals as well, who want to enhance the positive in their life and to feel as good as they possibly can. But there is a catch. Gratitude only helps you to maintain a positive mood if it’s expressed on a regular basis.
2. Improve Digestion with Gratefulness
During mealtimes, giving thanks may be one of the most important things we can do to improve our digestion and nutritional status. Our digestive system converts food into nutrients, but if we aren’t digesting our food well, then a lot of those nutrients aren’t able to be absorbed by the body.
Many important trace minerals such as zinc, iron, and selenium are naturally bound to the proteins in food. Stomach acid is required to free these minerals from the protein and also to digest the protein itself into individual amino acids. After digestion, these nutrients make their way to the small intestine where they are absorbed into the bloodstream.
If stomach acid production is low, or if the food doesn’t remain in the stomach long enough to be thoroughly acidified, then our ability to extract nutrition from our food becomes compromised. This phenomenon is more common than you may realize, as the main cause of malabsorption and malnutrition in people aged 65 and older is due to a condition called hypochlorhydria, which simply means low stomach acid production. People of any age can suffer from hypochlorhydria though, which can result from various medications, infections, and eating while stressed out.
Expressing gratitude induces feelings of relaxation, which puts the nervous system into a parasympathetic (rest and digest) state. When we make it a point to relax before, during, and after meals, we are telling our body that it’s time to eat food, and to prepare the digestive organs for incoming nutrition.
My favorite biochemistry professor during college, Dr. Richard Lord, commented during one of his lectures: “The way we eat and how we eat is a national habit that is killing us.” If we are stressed or rushed during mealtimes, our bodies are much less efficient at extracting nutrition from our food. Dr. Lord explained that developing an attitude of gratitude is quite possibly the single most important thing that people can do to improve their digestive function, and subsequently, their overall health.
3. Relax First, Then Chew
Stress decreases the production of stomach acid. When we experience stress, our sympathetic nervous system (SN) is activated, which is commonly referred to as ‘fight or flight.’ Stress triggers the SN to shut down digestion, stop stomach acid production, and to shuttle the body’s blood away from the digestive organs and into our skeletal muscles in preparation to fight or flee.
It is important to understand that our bodies perceive all stress the same way, real or imagined. So whether your life is actually in immediate danger, or you are watching a scary movie, or you are stressed out about money or work or your relationship or whatever, these stressors all activate our “fight or flight” response, shutting down digestion. Can you see why it’s a really bad idea to eat while you are stressed out?
It’s not better either when you quickly jump up from the dinner table after eating. The pyloric valve is like a little trap door at the bottom of the stomach that holds food in long enough for it to be broken down by the acid. Once thoroughly acidified, the digested food triggers the pyloric valve to open up, which leads into the small intestine, where the majority of the nutrients from food get absorbed. Getting up too quickly after a meal, or during a meal, causes the pyloric valve to open prematurely and dump partially-digested food into the small intestine, which is difficult to extract nutrients from.
Partially-digested food in the intestines is also a fertile breeding ground for all sorts of unfavorable bacteria and can be hard on gut health. Having an attitude of gratitude is, on a basic physiological level, one of the most effective things we can do to naturally improve our digestive function and nutrient status.
As it turns out, a lot of people—including myself—have a tough time with implementing a natural attitude of thankfulness! But practice does make perfect, and while some of the other healthful benefits of gratitude may only come with consistent practice, your digestion will benefit every single time you follow the next three simple steps.
3 Steps to Naturally Improve Digestion
- Do not pick up your fork until you are relaxed. Some families like to say grace at mealtime, others prefer to call it meditating or relaxing before a meal. I prefer to call it thanksgiving. In any case, get your mind into an attitude of gratitude.
- Eat slowly, chew thoroughly and thoughtfully, and enjoy every morsel. Be thankful for the food and its nutrients.
- When you are finished with a meal, continue to sit there for at least five minutes before standing up. We use a three-minute sand timer in our house and flip it over twice before we allow ourselves to get up from the table after we are done eating. This is not as easy at it sounds, because if you’re like me, you can’t wait to pop up after a meal, clear the table, and get onto the next task. Resist this urge, and sit there patiently to facilitate closure of the pyloric valve, and proper digestion of protein in your stomach. The reward is definitely worth the investment.
So while you are celebrating Thanksgiving this holiday season, in whatever way you choose, I encourage you to deeply ponder that which you are thankful for.
For me, there’s a lot I feel grateful for: my health, my loved ones, a comfortable home, the animals and plants who gave their lives for me to eat, the Paleo diet that literally saved my life. The list goes on and on.
It can be really difficult to feel grateful when going through a rough patch of life, but it’s precisely during those tough times that it might be the most beneficial to tap into the power of gratitude. Sometimes it can help to start by counting small blessings and work up to bigger blessings from there. Not only will expressing gratitude naturally boost your mood, improve digestion, and increase your overall health, but it’s also contagious. When you express gratitude outwardly, it makes it easier for others around you to do the same.
If you’re planning on sharing a Thanksgiving feast with family or friends this year, there’s nothing better that you can do to help everyone get the most out of their meals, nutritionally and otherwise, than by making a point to express your gratefulness at Thanksgiving.