When I started holistic nutrition school, I was working in a psych unit.

Yeah. I used to work in psych units. When I mention that, most people get images of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”.

It was pretty stressful, as you can imagine. Most of the clients were actually fairly chill (some benzodiazepine-induced), but there was always that handful you had to watch out for. The lovely girl with blond braids who brandished scissors and chased you around a desk, for instance. Or the guy who looked like he was straight out of medieval England – for some reason I always had an image of him tearing through the town square, splashing through mud, scaring chickens and fair ladies. He liked to raise his arms in the air, widen his eyes, roar, and come after you. Somehow his doughy form and wispy hair were quite menacing. The only thing that stopped him was a cigarette. So, in a frightening form of conditioning, he learned that a great way to get a cigarette thrown in his direction was to terrorize the staff.

Being in holistic nutrition school, I was learning all kinds of amazing things about food. I’d go home at night after work and create the tastiest and healthiest concoctions I could dream up. I wanted to stuff my body with vitamins and minerals. I wanted to make up for a lifetime of alternately binging on sugar, then subsisting on these nasty carb-free bars that tasted like a car’s tailpipe.

Each day I’d bring my creations to work for lunch. Everything was organic, of course. Beans, wilted greens, free-range meats. For snacks, carrots and almond butter. Hunks of sprouted bread.

And I’d eat them in a TOTAL STATE OF PANIC.

On good days, I was just mildly anxious.

You see, perhaps I’d just come from the unit, where the scary Mexican client had tried to get me to drink his urine, telling me it was “yooos” (juice). Or maybe my psyche was experiencing wear and tear from the stink, the dark hallways, and bodily fluids. Whatever it was, as I ate, I was barely breathing.

What that meant was all that tasty nutrient-dense goodness? The local biodynamic fiddlehead ferns fertilized with a virgin’s toejam and harvested by workers paid a fair wage? That stuff wasn’t getting digested.

When you breathe, slowly, in through your nose and out through your nose, you send signals to your nervous system to suppress stress hormones and activate a relaxation response.

In that state, you can digest.

If you are in fight-or-flight mode, your body reacts accordingly. Every bodily system that’s not crucial to either fight or flight shuts down. That includes your digestive system. Even much of the blood leaves your GI tract, so that it can flood your limbs and prepare you for an emergency response.

That means that even if you’re eating the Big Mama of healthy lunches, if you’re stressed, you’re not getting any of the benefits. (Conversely, if you eat a chocolate croissant while you’re relaxed, it will digest well and your body will extract every last nutrient possible from it.)

When I learned that (later in holistic nutrition school) I was like “@#%! I’ve wasted so many amazing lunches!”

And I began to start my lunches with deep breathing, and maybe a mental word of thanks.

And then I left that job. But that’s another story.

RULE #1 – When you eat, remember to breathe.