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.
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?
Wow I never would have thought that our jaw muscles are underworked because of the food we eat. I am going to try and see what textures and raw vegetables I can add to my diet to work my jaw muscles more! Thanks for the inspiration!!!
It was very informative, thank you! Even I never realized it before, it makes so much sense that the reason we are so many with jaw clenching problems is because of the misuse of our masseter and temporalis muscles. As someone who is definitively not chewing enough, I will really try to eat mindfully in the future.
A very informative article! I like simplifying our digestive track as one long tube! Our bodies are amazing and simply mind-blowing with its functions that’s been preprogrammed! My take away from this article is to not be lazy during the day and find food that I can chew CHEW cheewwww so I can finally tire out those jaw muscles that tense up my entire day! Thanks!
Very, very interesting. As one who’s dealt with TMJ, I really appreciate this information. I find it difficult to continue chewing until the food is pulverized, but I’ve just been given another reason to try harder. Thanks!
I love the idea that chewing more during meal times as a way to get the strong masseter muscle more of the movement it needs might be a way to minimize some unnecessary jaw clenching at night. Definitely going to work on chewing more and working back up to harder foods.
Get the habit of eating in mindfulness and take the time to eat, a big challenge in 2018. ! Thanks so much
How you eat is as much important as What you eat! I agree that sufficient chewing is key to digestion & good digestion leads to longevity!
Thanks for making me pause, and think about my digestive tract and digestion! I think Everybody Eats will be a best-seller
I am probably an over-chewer. I love to chew crunchy foods, I am a nighttime jaw clencher, and I spend a lot of time chewing my food. The Jaw Joint and Temple Tamer in the The Roll Model book helps ease the tension in my masseter and temporalis muscles.
Thanks for bringing more mindfulness to something I do everyday. If proper chewing can make me feel change the way I feel; I am all in!
I definitely overlook muscles such as these. Its almost silly when you consider how important they are in the process of filing our bodies to survive. Thanks for the mindfulness check in!
Thanks so much for this very helpful and informative article! I first thought about chewing after reading the Alicia Silverstone book, The Kind Diet, in which (if I remember correctly), she recommends chewing a lot to break down food and let the saliva help us digest food. I thought the extra chewing was to eat more mindfully and make sure that the food was fully broken down but this makes me understand the benefit to the jaw as well. I found the chewing boring but I’m also a nighttime jaw clenched so after reading this, I will definitely make a… Read more »
Thank you Jessie for your interesting perspective to explain the masseter and temporalis muscles! As a former Food Engineer and a person who eats processed food :/ I totally agree about the idea of spending more time for working our jaw muscles. Less cooking especially for veggies is a easy step to start to work those muscles and rolling the therapy balls. It will definitely affect the stress, Migraine pain and Jaw disorders. I can wait to read the rest of your articles. Thanks!
Thank you for this post! I love the connection you make between work stress, jaw muscles, food and evolution. I have been on the Whole30 this month and have really overhauled my eating habits and become SO much happier and balanced about food and cravings. Your writing makes me wonder if my cravings for “crunch” are stronger when I am not eating foods that require proper chewing or when I am too stressed to eat mindfully.
I love to use the blender to make my food easy to ingest especially when I’m busy. Instead of eating my food, I drink my food. I enjoy smoothies and I will reorganize the ratio of the fruit and veggies put it into the blender and put out one portion to chew & consume.
Thank you for providing the information. I will start to chew more on the solid food. Totally remind me about the science of food digestion start from chewing and mixing the digestive enzymes with the carbs and moving down to the digestive tract. Ayurvedic diet guildlines suggest chewing your food at least 20 times to alter the solid phase to liquid phase before swallowing. I rarely do this and let the Vitamax do the job for me. Totally will increase the solid food into my diet and chew more before to swallow. Let my masseter function as the way they… Read more »
Thank you! I never considered how I could shift my eating habits to improve my jaw function.
I never really thought about this, but the fact that we eat food that’s almost pre-digested SHOULD and DOES negatively affect how our muscles are designed to work. In savasana, one of our cues is to relax the jaw and let the tongue come unstuck from the roof of the mouth (which really only highlights how often our jaws are clenched and everything contracted). Thanks for the great insight!
What a fantastic article! Thank you for the great read!
Thank you Jessie, this is such interesting information about the body intelligence and the misuse of our masseter and temporals muscles because of a fact we don’t even think about… And can’t wait to roll the therapy balls over these muscles. Would love to dive deeper into this subject. Thanks again.
Absolutely love your explanation and your suggestion to use the YTU therapy balls.
Great detail into the use of the muscles of the jaw. Also loved that you added in the more you chew the more satisfying (and full) you will be. A lot of people don’t know about how important the jaw is in not only digesting properly but relieving stress and having a calmer digestive process because of chewing. Learned about the muscles of the jaw which I didn’t know, as in my experience with digestive diseases I’ve always focused more on the intestines, stomach, colon and other organs. Also great to feel my coronoid process while you described it. Always… Read more »
I love reading these blogs about digestion, chewing, and jaw tension. As someone with digestion struggles and jaw/neck tension, I have been exploring ways of mindful eating and my habits surrounding eating. In terms of the physicality of chewing, I have noticed that I do my majority of chewing on the right side of my mouth. Probably no coincidence that the majority of my tension issues are on the left side of my jaw/head. I have since been trying to mindfully chew with both sides of my mouth, so that the left side also gets a workout. I also notice… Read more »
As a teeth-grinder at night I have tight masseters on a regular basis. I always thought it was stress-related, but I wasn’t aware of the fact that it could also be caused by under-using the chewing muscles during day-time by eating “hard” food. I have experienced the feeling of not having had enough after drinking a smoothie, even though there must have been enough calories and macronutrients inside of it considering the ingredients. Now I know that this has also got to do with the innervation of the (in this case not used) chewing muscles.
Thank you so much Jessie ! Your sharing are so so so interesting: you can explain anatomy and nutrition with vivid exemples who help understanding ! And your suggestions for maximise our digestion are simple to do and with arguments that give the taste to try !
Thank you for this post! I just heard a segment on NPR that talked about a concept developed in Japan that takes beloved foods like salmon, purees, adds gelatin, and reforms the food/gel paste back into salmon’s original shape. Their reasoning harkens to the high rate of older adult fatality due to choking. Thus, this process makes eating well loved foods a safer option. That said, as your article eloquently explains, chewing your food is integral to jaw health and optimal elimination. In school, I learned: chew your food until it is liquid. Your article gives the explanation behind that… Read more »
Mindful eating – another reminder how important the mind/body connection is. I have to admit that I’ve neglected the muscles of my jaw – am anxious to roll this area. Thanks!
Thank you for this article. You explained the connection between chewing and feeding satiated very well. I have always heard that you should chew your food 30 times, but had assumed that it was only for grinding up your food into smaller, more easily digestible bits.
I think that I will save the smoothies for a treat from now on and focus on eating food in it’s chewable form!
I think the connection you make between digestion and processed foods is intelligent and real. I will try to eat mindfully without distraction, as I often find myself gulping down food in front of my screens! Since reading your article last week , I am putting a conscious effort into slowing down and chewing properyly!
I’m hooked on this whole series of blogs! I’m a clencher, but also vegetarian, so I chew a lot of raw vegetables. I need to get busy with my YTU therapy balls and roll my masseter and temporalis! Much food for thought, thanks!
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!
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… Read more »
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.
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… Read more »
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…
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).
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.
Great post! Alignment for digestion-so important and so overlooked. Thank you for sharing this information!
Great article reminder to slow down and bring awareness when eating.
Very interesting! Mindful eating from the view of anatomy. Love it!
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… Read more »
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!
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.
Thanks for article. Great reminder. Slow down, be awareness
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?
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!
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.
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!
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… Read more »
Love this article Jesse! You have such a gift!!