Tune Up Fitness® Tune Up Fitness Blog » The Ins, Outs, and In Betweens of Your Digestive Tract: How Muscle Imbalances in Your Jaw and Neck Affect Digestion – Part One: Chewing

The Ins, Outs, and In Betweens of Your Digestive Tract: How Muscle Imbalances in Your Jaw and Neck Affect Digestion – Part One: Chewing

By: | Wednesday, September 21st, 2016 | Comments 20

Everybody Eats: my suggested title for the prequel of the bestselling children’s book Everybody Poops. While it may not have the excitement and allure of a fascinating tale of elimination, it would be an equally compelling story of the process of digestion. We rarely pause to consider the functions of the organs that process and assimilate our food into our bodies. Yet without our digestive system, our bodies would lack the essential nutrients to keep our beings healthy and vibrant. In this multi-part series, we will explore how our habitual body positioning can throw our digestive systems out of whack.

Everybody poops!

Unlike the Internet, your digestive system is just one long tube.

First, an introduction to your digestive system. Your alimentary canal is a single tube, compartmentalized by function, from your mouth to your anus, with sphincters that pace movement and auxiliary organs that provide juices and enzymes to breakdown food. Its smooth muscle functions outside of your conscious control. Food moves through the tract via peristalsis, or wave-like contractions; like pushing toothpaste out of the tube from the bottom. Skeletal muscles help with voluntary propulsions of food in the throat (swallowing) and rectum (defecation).

Structural imbalances of the muscles that aid in chewing and swallowing can botch proper digestion from the first bite. In part one and two of this series, we will explore the muscles of the jaw and neck that govern chewing and swallowing, what can go awry, and how it can be corrected. Let’s break down chewing.

How often do you consider the strength of your jaw muscles? It’s likely that you only notice your jaw muscles after hours of chewing gum on an airplane only to wake up the next day without being able to open your mouth. Or if you’ve ever experienced teeth grinding leading to headaches or temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders.

The muscles that depress, or open, the jaw are the geniohyoid, mylohyoid, and stylohyoid, collectively know as the suprahyoids. You will learn more about this group of muscles in Part Two: Swallowing. The prime movers of jaw elevation, or closure, are the masseter and temporalis. Together, with the suprahyoids, their actions create chewing. We’ll start with the muscles that close and clench the jaw.

The masseter muscle is the strongest muscle in the body relative to its size. It’s the primary muscle used for chewing. The combined power of the masseters is up to 150 lbs of biting force – or enough to bite off a finger. They are located on the sides of the mandible (jaw) between the zygomatic arches (cheekbones) and the sloping curves of the jaw just below the ears.

The temporalis lies at the temples on either side of the head. It sweeps over the fossa, or depression, of the temporal bone and tunnels under the zygomatic arch to connect to the mandible at it’s coronoid process. To find your coronoid process, slide your fingers roughly halfway between your cheekbones and earlobes and open your jaw. The place where your jaw hinges is where the temporalis attaches.

Our jaw and surrounding muscles are designed to tear and gnaw through uncooked plant fibers and meat. When our ancestors began cooking their food, it was the first time food material became tenderized and easy to chew through. Cooking over a fire was the first form of food processing. It changed food from its natural state to something easier for us to masticate. Over the years, we have developed several methods of food production that render our foods almost pre-digested. Nowadays, whole foods are broken down into food components and reformed into convenient caloric packages. However, food processing development has happened faster than human jaw evolution, which has led to misuse of our masseter and temporalis muscles.

Chewing dense food at every meal should fatigue the muscles, however, food processing has superseded our natural food grinding ability. The muscles are left with the desire to chew, suck, or crunch. This craving coupled with persistent stress, has created an environment for habitual jaw clenching, resulting in perpetually contracted masseter and temporalis muscles.

Tight chewing muscles are the ultimate effect, but the causes are not linear. Food manufacturing has made eating more convenient so we spend greater time working, yet the stress of working contributes to jaw overuse. Our jaw muscles are too tired from clenching so we reach for softer, more mashed foods. And because we are not chewing to fatigue the muscles they are more likely to clamp down in the presence of stress. And so on, and so on…

Luckily, there is a way to break this cycle. Eat foods that you have to chew many times before swallowing. Crush your food into liquid before sending it to the stomach. Eat mindfully. Enjoy the flavors and textures of your food. In addition to adequately working your jaw muscles, this may increase the feelings of enjoyment and satisfaction. The nerves that feed into the muscles in the jaw connect to satiety areas in the brain – the higher amount of chewing the more satisfaction you will feel.

For even more satisfaction, encourage your jaw muscles to relax between chewing sessions by rolling the original Yoga Tune Up® Therapy Balls over your masseter and temporalis muscles. The sequences Jaw Joint and Temple Tamer in the The Roll Model will help you unwind your grind.

Chew on this for a while, then come back Friday to learn how to smooth out your swallowing reflex.

Enjoyed this article? Read Talking, Chewing, and Tension–How Do They Relate?

About This Author

Yoga and mindful-eating helps Jessie reconnect to and appreciate her body and what it can do. Her goal is to bring her students the very best of what she is living and learning and to keep her classes real and honest. Jessie is known for her hands on approach and as an articulate teacher, so students can listen and go inward if they choose. Her personal style of teacher blends alignment and magical movements – techniques to unwind habitual body tension and pose add-ons to make shapes strong and comfortable. Together, with Jessie’s mindful-eating classes, students learn why, when, what, how, and how much to eat and where they invest their energy back into their lives. Jessie is a Yoga Alliance 200 HR E-RYT. She has completed both the Forrest Yoga Foundational and Advanced teacher training programs and is a Certified Yoga Tune Up® teacher. Jessie holds undergraduate degrees in nutrition and exercise physiology and a graduate degree in nutrition. She is also a licensed Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating facilitator. Jessie created Wild Wisdom Yoga to blend yoga and mindful-eating so students can fully realize their instinctive wisdom when moving and eating. She leads teacher-training programs featuring her signature program From Um to Om®: Public Speaking for Yoga Teachers.

The Ins, Outs, and In Betweens of Your Digestive Tract: How Muscle Imbalances in Your Jaw and Neck Affect Digestion – Part One: Chewing

  1. Nick Shrewsbury says:

    That is fascinating. An interesting theory, that we clench our jaws because we don’t chew the dense foods that our ancestors did. I’d love to see some supportive reasearch besides the flat statements!

  2. Pamela Ferner says:

    Thank you for this article. I was looking for something about rolling out the jaw muscle as my husband was told he needed a night guard as he was grinding his teeth. Other people I know who have purchased them dont ever where them so I figured I would suggest he try out the yoga tune up balls on his jaw. It is everything else I learned in your article that was really helpful, and makes perfect sense. Slowing down, paying attention to what we eat is a good way to relax and enjoy the moment anyway. Choosing foods that will give the jaw a workout is not at all what I expected to read. Great to be surprised and learn.

  3. Kathryn says:

    I have never once thought about how your neck and chewing muscles affect the digestion process. I especially have never thought about the fatiguing of the masseter and temporalis muscles. It all makes sense, but not something I have focused on before. I’ll have to be more mindful of chewing foods I’m eating in the future.

  4. Elise says:

    Years of singing and acting lessons taught me that jaw tension is no good. I can still hear the voice of my first acting teacher screaming, “relax your jaw.” And I still use one of my favorite tricks a famous opera singer taught me: when the jaw just doesn’t want to relax and none of the other releasing exercises seem to be working, take the heels of your palms right behind the temples and begin to gently massaging the line where the jaw hinge attaches. Ever since I learned it, this has been my trick and after reading this post I know why. Jaw tension is relentless and last time I saw my dentist she said she suspected I was grinding my teeth at night. She recommended I purchase a night guard but the price of this little plastic protector that I knew I wouldn’t use was enough to make my jaw unhinge. All the more reason to work on releasing this tension a little bit every day.

  5. Marissa Maislen says:

    I am the worst at taking time to chew through food, and for whatever reason, as I get older I choose food that requires less of a jaw workout. This is making me reconsider what foods I’m eating, how I’m eating them, and how this relates to stress reflected in muscle tension around my face and jaw…

  6. Torie says:

    I always related jaw clenching to people with high levels of anxiety or stress (from daily life, working too much, supporting a family, or it just being their inherent nature), and never thought it could be a more primitive/subconscious stress due to not chewing enough food to fatigue the muscles (thus, they are more likely to clamp down in the presence of stress).

  7. sabrina says:

    To be totally I have never actually considered the impact of jaw health on digestion & even more so I have never thought of the evolution of food like this. So eye opening! Definitely will need to work on some mindfulness when it comes to biting, chewing & digesting food.

  8. Bree says:

    Great post! Alignment for digestion-so important and so overlooked. Thank you for sharing this information!

  9. Mari says:

    Great article reminder to slow down and bring awareness when eating.

  10. Very interesting! Mindful eating from the view of anatomy. Love it!

  11. Jessie Dwiggins says:

    Liz, your question about the impacts of chewing on digestion is so thoughtful, thank you.

    Many of the studies in this area assess bite force and chewing efficiency in people with dentures and they aren’t looking at the type and quality of food being chewing. Other chewing studies focus on ruminant animals and the effects of grass and hay in their many abodes of digestion. So, I don’t have a clear answer for you, but many anecdotal thoughts.

    I think it depends on the type of food we’re eating. Processed foods have been mechanically altered by machine prior to our consumption and injected with additives, emulsifiers, binders, nutrients, stabilizers, and more. The foods are easier to chew and thus help to create a pattern of lazy chewing. But, we’d also have to look at how each of the additives affects the digestive process to get a clear picture on what happens down stream. Even though we don’t have to chew as much, it may still be difficult for the digestive system to handle.

    Whole foods require more biomechanical breakdown. If we are thorough in our mastication of whole foods, the digestive system will have an easier time of metabolizing nutrients using native enzymes equipped for breakdown and absorption. If we are in a pattern of lazy chewing due to increased processed food consumption, we can assume the digestive system will be taxed to break down larger food particles. That food will have a longer transit time from entry to elimination. The point of chewing for the digestive system is to create more surface area in the food particles for enzymes to do their work.

    Thank you so much for adding to the conversation!

  12. Liz Maynard says:

    Super interesting! I especially liked the link between the evolutionary development of the strength of the masseters and the impact of modern food production and consumption and the resultant excess tension in the jaw! I would have liked to have read more about the impact on digestion (are we too lazy with food chewing? does that mean our internal systems have to work harder?). Thanks much!

  13. Sophie says:

    Thank you for reminding us that the first step in digestion begins in your mouth. With modern food processing and cooking, our jaws are left underworked, like a lot of our muscles. As a trainer, I train those typically underworked body muscles from today’s society, however, I have neglected to train my jaw with various textured foods.

  14. Ekaterina says:

    Thanks for article. Great reminder. Slow down, be awareness

  15. Ming says:

    super neat! i just came from part one, and i love how this explored the topic even deeper. I wonder if chewing more slowly and more thoroughly would help with the headaches associated with clenching the jaw?

  16. Natalie K. says:

    This is an interesting article. I have a lot of digestion issues and over the years i have learned that the jaw line is directly correlated to the stomach organ. It’s interesting to me that if we don’t chew enough throughout our day, our jaw wants to do that work and if it doesn’t we grind or might hold our stress there, and that may indirectly cause digestive issues. Thank you so much for this article!

  17. Thank you for this article. Digestion seems less complex by knowing that it is one long transit – and it reenforce why it is so important to be eating – and chewing! – without being stressed and/or distracted, as it interfers with the natural process.

  18. Kathleen Macchioni says:

    Great article! Even though I know everything is connected it is so fascinating to learn the intricate processes that get us to through our day and life. Thank you Jessie!

  19. I think most of us overlook what muscles are involved in the eating process along with how our body intrinsically digests our food without much thought. As an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, Massage Therapist and Certified Yoga Tune Up teacher this article brings to mind that there are so many inner workings of our body that work together that most people give hardly a thought to, myself included.
    I work on many TMJ clients. With the YTU Therapy balls clients can take the power of self care in their own hands. They can mimic what I do as a massage therapist and help themselves feel better, for long term care. There is nothing parallel to being passively worked on by a skilled therapist and being in a relaxed, restful state, however we can teach clients the tools of self care. Thank you Jessie for sharing this topic to our community.

  20. Lauren Reese says:

    Love this article Jesse! You have such a gift!!

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