Why did the Romans recline while feasting?
The discomfort from stuffing yourself with a large meal might be eased by lying down. But only on one side.
Modern solo toga party. (Photo: Colourbox)
Perhaps it was more than fashion that inspired the ancient Romans to eat in a horizontal position, researchers Trygve Hausken and Jørgen Valeur suggest in the latest issue of the Norwegian Medical Association’s journalTidsskriftet for Den norske legeforening.
The weight of a meal itself influences the uncomfortable feeling of being stuffed to the brim.
“We think pressure on the antrum – the lower portion of the stomach – has a lot to do with discomfort after a meal,” says Valeur, a senior resident at Oslo’s Lovisenberg Diakonale Hospital.
This is indicated by research with people who suffer from stress-related indigestion or functional dyspepsia.
“Normally the upper part of the stomach will expand while you eat, adjusting to the amount of food. But if you are stressed, the walls of your stomach stiffen, which increases the pressure on the lower part,” he says.
The feeling of discomfort comes when the antrum is distended. This probably applies to healthy stomachs too, for instance when the possessor has overdone it at the buffet table. That’s where the chaise longue comes in.
Pressure on the antrum really changes when we lie down. But not just any lie-down will do.
According to the researchers, if you recline on your right side, the lower part of the stomach expands so you feel stuffed, but if you lie on your left side, the load on the antrum is reduced.
“It’s fair to assume that a person can actually alleviate the discomfort after a meal by lying on the proper side," says Valour. "Maybe this is just what the old Romans were doing during their food orgies."
He thinks other factors could also be involved in making pressure on the lower part of the stomach cause problems.
Taste receptors in the intestines
Pressure could make the food in the stomach pass more quickly through to the doorway to the intestines.
Normally the body regulates this process carefully. The strong muscle (pyloric sphincter) controlling the flow of food into the small intestine starts by allowing just a little sample to pass through.
Lots of taste cells are situated at the top of the intestines – not much different from the ones on our tongues – and these taste the contents of the stomach. After that test, the body controls how quickly the rest should be let through.
According to Valeur, the pace depends on the stomach contents.
“If it’s just water, it gets through rapidly. But if it consists of lots of fats, the intestines need a long time to digest it. Then the stomach just lets a little trickle into the intestines at a time.”
Valeur thinks that if a larger pressure on the antrum lets more of the stomach contents pass by the pyloric sphincter, this could contribute to discomfort after a meal. Then it’s not unfeasible that resting on your left side can help you out.
So far the effect hasn’t been tested sufficiently, he admits. So the field is open if you want to conduct some home research the next time you pig out with your friends.
If Hausken and Valeur’s suggested method proves insufficient, and the pressure on your stomach becomes intolerable, you might have to use the second trick up the sleeves of the aristocratic Romans: