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Understanding digestion: The cephalic phase

As health practitioners, we are acutely aware of the importance of a good digestive system but there are so many elements that can affect its efficient functionality.

A key factor that plays a major role in digestive health occurs even before the physical digestion process begins and is linked to the sight, smell, thought and taste of food – it’s called the cephalic phase.

Cephalic phase response

The cephalic phase is intrinsically linked to the anticipation of food and is an essential trigger for effective digestion as it kick-starts the gastric secretion process.

The cerebral cortex is stimulated by the sight, smell and thought of food and reacts by sending a message to the medulla oblongata via the hypothalamus. This reaction then triggers the gastric juices in the stomach wall by alerting the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) via the vagus nerve. The hormonal and nervous systems then transfer further information that creates an ongoing beneficial effect in the digestive system.

Focussing on food

To aid digestion and optimise the cephalic phase response it’s crucial to be present with food; consider how it looks and smells, and generate the anticipation that helps to trigger the digestive process. Creating a calm, quiet environment to eat in also helps to stimulate the PNS side of the ANS.

Focussing entirely on food and avoiding any forms of multitasking or distraction –  computers, phones and televisions – is an essential part of optimising the cephalic phase response. Taking time to chew food to liquid and breaking down food before swallowing also helps to maximise digestion, while limiting fluid intake will avoid diluting digestive juices.

Healthy lifestyle habits

Few people are aware that the efficiency of the digestive process is often compromised by poor lifestyle choices that affect the activation and optimisation of the cephalic phase response. The demands of everyday life means that it’s easy to be preoccupied and stressed. Failing to be ‘present’ when food is eaten means missing out on the invaluable health benefits this stage offers the body.

When due attention isn’t being paid to food before the eating process begins, or during the meal, the full beneficial response isn’t activated, therefore increasing the likelihood of digestive problems.

Tips for optimising the cephalic response

  • Always sit down to eat, never eat ‘on the run’;
  • Create a calm environment by minimising distractions such as computers, televisions and radios;
  • Take time to prepare food with care;
  • Focus on mealtimes and encourage the whole family to take time out to enjoy the activity;
  • Look, smell and appreciate your meal before starting to eat;
  • Consider meal preparation as a hobby rather than a chore to increase food appreciation;
  • Enjoy each mouthful.

Understanding how the the cephalic phase response works and the impact of lifestyle choices in maintaining general wellbeing is essential for avoiding health problems and ensuring that the body operates at maximum efficiency.

Holistic Approaches to a Fully Functional Gut

Emma Lane’s popular course. In-depth information on the far-reaching effects that gut function and dysfunction can have on the whole body. Learn proven, effective approaches to diagnosis and healing. For course options check our calendar.


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