Your Brain on Chewing
Many of my clients complain of stress, anxiety, and depression. As a nutritionist specializing in digestive health, is helping my clients with these issues part of my scope of practice? And if so, where should I start? Well, since chewing happens to be the first step in the digestive process, and since there is a huge gut-brain connection, the answer is a resounding YES!
Just taking the time to chew has been shown to both relax and stimulate our brains. Interesting that chewing can make a person both relaxed and stimulated!
How does chewing reduce stress?
On one side of the “chewing coin,” chewing affects the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the involuntary nervous system, “reducing stress-induced changes in the central nervous system”(1). Chewing may interfere with the brain’s ability to process external stressors, relieving us of stress (2).
Chewing stimulates the same areas of the brain that physical activity does. (I can just guess that you are thinking right now about skipping your daily exercise routine!) And it is well-known that exercise has positive effects on stress (3).
Emily Rosen, Director of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, writes, “Chewing is an important outlet for tension. In an effort to free the unreleased tension, we may continue to eat (chew) past the point of satiation, turn to other oral-based habits like gum chewing, or simply internalize the tension, allowing it to build until it explodes in emotional or biological symptoms” (1). This stress response can be seen in common digestive ailments such as heartburn or reflux.
How does chewing increase alertness?
On the other side of the “chewing coin,” chewing helps us stay awake and focused. I once had a client who had to eat while she worked to help keep her on task. Since chewing has been found to increase heart rate and cortisol levels, this may be why my client experienced more alertness and focus (3). A recent review article showed that chewing had a positive effect on attention, mood, and stress relief. The authors hypothesized that increased cerebral blood flow may be the reason for improved attention (2).
For you gum chewers out there, studies show that chewing gum may reduce stress, anxiety, fatigue, and depression. It also washes down acid due to gastric reflux. One large cross-sectional study showed that gum chewers were 3.7% less likely to have depression (4). This same study also showed that people who chewed gum had significantly lower rates of both high blood pressure and high cholesterol (both of which are associated with stress and anxiety) compared with those who didn’t chew gum. Gum chewing is also associated with faster reaction time. Chewing may even have a positive effect on working memory, although more research needs to be done (3).
So, who knew? Sitting down to have a meal or snack and chewing well can be both a relaxing and stimulating experience!
Stay tuned for the third article in our chewing series, Make No Bones About It, to learn how chewing’s stress-relieving benefits improve your bone health. And if you missed the previous article in this series, check it out here.
Better Gut Tip: Give yourself enough time to eat so that you have time to chew, and observe whether you become more relaxed and/or more alert.
- Kubo K, Iinuma M, Chen H. Mastication as a Stress-Coping Behavior. BioMed Research International. 2015: 1-11.
- Hirano Y, Onozuka M. Chewing and Attention: A Positive Effect on Sustained Attention. BioMed Research International. 2015:1-6.
- Weijenberg R, Lobbezoo F. Chew the Pain Away: Oral Habits to Cope with Pain and Stress and to Stimulate Cognition. BioMed Research International
- Smith AP. Chewing gum, stress and health. Stress and Health. 2009;25:445–451.