Heart pounding, sweat streaming down the sides of our faces—we’ve all experienced moments of extreme fear in our lives, and with that level of adrenaline pumping through one’s veins, it can be hard to calm back down. I’ve long assumed that the only thing you can do to slow down your heart rate is to just wait it out, maybe do some deep breathing, but I recently learned of a long-standing Mexican tradition to induce a sense of calm: eating bread. There’s some science backing up the practice, too.
NBC News recently wote about this fascinating Mexican tradition. The preferred bread to curb fear is usually a bolillo, a football-shaped roll with a thin, crackly crust and a fluffy interior. (A cold tortilla will also do.) It’s the type of advice Mexican grandmothers have passed down through generations.
I, like many people, have always considered bread a comfort food. It can be something you tear into absentmindedly for pure enjoyment of the carbs (of course), but there are good reasons to eat it after a shocking situation, too.
Gastroenterologist Nayeli Ortiz Olvera explained to NBC News that adrenaline triggered by fear has many physical effects on the body: “All of this stimulates our nervous system and makes the heart beat much faster, and breathing is much faster.” The body responds to these signals by producing excess stomach acid in order to speed up energy production.
“The bolillo is a carbohydrate, when we eat it the acid that is produced in the stomach is neutralized,” Ortiz Olvera said. “In addition, the simple fact of chewing, of distracting our attention, helps to reduce agitation and we control our body again.”
Though the whole eat-bread-when-scared thing is often dismissed as mere superstition, it really does make sense that tearing off a chunk of bolillo would replenish the body with fast energy, especially after a sudden, unexpected expenditure. And it’s a simple fact that eating gives us something else to focus on; how often do parents soothe a crying kid by handing them some kind of snack?
Usually the last thing I’d want to do while I’m scared or stressed is eat something. I’m one of those people who suddenly loses all appetite when my heart is racing like that. But if there’s anyone whose advice I treasure, it’s grandmothers. Next time I watch a horror movie, I’ll just make sure to sneak a bolillo into the movie theater—don’t be surprised if you hear crackling during the scary parts.