How Often Does Your Gut Want You to Eat?

We have 6,000 thoughts a day, on average, during our waking hours. 

About 40 minutes of those waking hours are spent thinking about food. Not only that, but the average American feeding window – the amount of time between your first bite of food and your last – is between 10 and 14 hours.

As with anything digestion-related, it behooves us to ask: Is that what your gut wants you to do?

While it’s not quite sentient, the gut isn’t called the body’s “second brain” for nothing. 

The gut contains: 

  • 70% of your body’s immune system…
  • 90% of your body’s serotonin production…
  • And 100 million neurons, which communicate with the brain via the body’s longest cranial nerve – the vagus nerve – connecting the brainstem to the colon.

There are myriad practices that can logjam digestion. It’s a very busy metropolis, the gut – trillions of microbiota fighting for supremacy and struggling to feed themselves.

Functional medicine experts believe that not only what and how you eat can affect your gut health, but when you eat as well. 

For those of us with 14 hour feeding windows…

It might be time to consider conscious and purposeful meal spacing to give the gut a break.

The gut never sleeps, after all – whether we’re constantly eating or not. 

Let’s explore why we decided on three square meals a day in the first place.

The Migrating Motor Complex

Ideally, and unless you’re intermittently fasting, you eat breakfast in the morning…

Wait four-six hours and eat lunch…

Then wait four-six hours and eat dinner.

However, the American feeding model has changed. Most people aren’t eating three meals per day anymore. They’re just replacing their lunch meal with several hours of snacking.

Now, there are many valid reasons not to eat three meals per day.

Some people have lower digestive capabilities, which makes them undereaters. Some people have low blood sugar, and therefore find themselves eating more meals per day because it’s too hard to wait until the next meal when their blood sugar is crashing. Some people are training or trying to gain weight, and therefore eat more.

But mostly, the all-day grazing that has replaced traditional meal spacing is a big problem.

And the reason is a mechanism in your gut called the migrating motor complex (MMC). 

The MMC is your gut’s zamboni, essentially. 

It operates in a wave-like function along the gastrointestinal smooth muscles. When your stomach grumbles, that’s the motility pattern at work. 

Two to three hours after you’ve digested your food and absorbed its nutrients, the MMC wakes up and starts sweeping away any undigested food and bacteria from the stomach and small intestines. 

This internal maintenance is vital for so many reasons (just ask anyone with SIBO, which can be caused by an ill-functioning MMC.)

Reverse engineering, we are given to understand that three times a day (or however often you eat), you need to break for at least four hours to allow the MMC to function properly.

What Happens When the MMC Stops Working?

Short answer?

Bacterial overgrowth (again, think of SIBO). 

In healthy bodies, the MMC runs a sweep every 90 minutes or so (meaning it sweeps a couple of times during a four hour break period.)

And any caloric intake at all will stop the MMC – from a coffee to a potato chip to a carrot. As long as your meal isn’t taken intravenously, since an MMC disruption requires upper digestive tract contact, you’ll stop the clearing process by snacking.

Without that process, undigested food particles and bacteria will build up after each meal or snack, making motility even more difficult. It also opens the door for leaky gut, poor nutrient absorption, and excess bacteria growth. 

Those affected with slowed or damaged motility will experience symptoms like:

  • Bloating
  • Indigestion
  • Heartburn
  • Constipation
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • And more.

The best way to ensure that your MMC continues to clear away any undigested food and bacteria is to allow it to run uninhibited.

That means spacing your meals and eating times at least four hours apart, unless there is a medical reason you cannot do that. 

The MMC is one example of nature’s design solving problems for us.

We just have to get out of its way!

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