When Food Is Not to Blame: How Stress Can Affect Digestion
As integrative nutritionists, we consider health from a whole-body point of view. This means we consider all factors that affect your health. Of course, we consider food but we also look at lifestyle factors such as stress, exercise, and sleep, as well. Many of our clients experience digestive symptoms more so because one of these areas is imbalanced. When this happens, it’s easy to blame food. But what if food wasn’t always the culprit?
As we tell our clients, we can help guide you through a gut-healing diet to help with symptoms related to IBS, GERD, SIBO or IBD but you won’t experience significant or lasting results without also addressing these super-important health inputs.
This article is the first of three in a series about how stress, sleep and exercise can have a huge impact on our digestive health. So let’s start with what is no doubt the biggest contributor of chronic illness and digestive distress… STRESS.
I know, I know, you’ve heard this a million times. But let me explain why this is one of the most important factors impacting your digestion and what we can do about it. When it comes to gut-health, stress management is just as important (perhaps even more important) as the food you eat (or don’t eat).
What is the Stress Response?
- The stress response or “fight or flight” response is the emergency reaction system of the body. It is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival. It’s designed to keep us safe during emergencies. In this case, our stress response is a good thing!
- When we experience a stressful situation, our heart beats faster, our muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, we breathe faster and our senses become sharper.
- Your nervous system can’t distinguish between emotional and physical threats. If you’re super stressed over a work deadline or a pile of bills, your body can react just as strongly as if you are facing a life or death situation.
- Stress can take on many forms, it’s not just work stress or a major life change such as death or divorce that affects us but also the constant demands of our overwhelmingly over-scheduled lives, as well. Things such as being stuck in traffic, being late for work, having arguments with our partner, experiencing financial issues, all contribute to a chronic state of stress. And let’s not forget that emotional or physical trauma are also stressors.
What Does Stress Do to the Body?
When we are stressed, our nervous system releases more of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Prolonged stress over time can:
- Signal to the body to store fat
- Weaken the immune system (by the way, most of your immune system cells live in the gut)
- Cause digestive issues (more on that below)
- Cause high blood pressure, headaches and insomnia (just to name a few)
What Does Stress Do to the Digestive System?
- What happens to the digestive system when we are in a constant state of stress and can’t turn it off? It goes haywire!
- It affects the way food moves through our body (hello constipation or diarrhea)
- We are more likely to have heartburn/acid reflux
- Excessive cortisol (a stress hormone) causes inflammation in the digestive tract
- We produce extra blood sugar, causing inflammation
- Blood and oxygen move away from the digestive tract to our extremities so we can run from the proverbial lion
- In short, stress makes it virtually impossible to properly digest our food
How to Tame Stress For Better Digestion
As much as we would like to, we can’t get rid of all the stress. It’s a normal part of life, but we can change the way our body reacts to stress. We can “turn off” the flight or flight mode and “turn on” the rest and digest mode to ensure we better digest our food. So how do we do that?
- The number one thing you can do to get started is to make sure you eat in a relaxed state
- Try these simple breathing exercises. If you can count to 7, you can do this. It may seem too easy to have an effect but these breathing exercises are powerful ways to train your body to better respond to stress.
- Do not eat in front of the TV, in your car, while working, in a hurry, etc.
- Eat slowly and chew your food thoroughly. And by thoroughly I mean chew 20+ times until it’s virtually liquid. This will give your stomach less work to do.
In addition to making sure you elicit the rest and digest mode while eating, we want to extend that sense of calm as often as possible. There are numerous approaches we can take, but the key is finding the one that resonates best with you. Consider:
- Yoga – Find a local class or try online yoga videos
- Meditation – Headspace and 10% Happier are popular apps to get started
- Gratitude Journal – Take a few moments to note 5 things you are thankful for or 5 things that put a smile on your face
- Exercising – Low and moderate impact exercises have incredible benefits for stress relief and digestion
- Being outdoors – Fresh air, sunshine and nature calms the nervous system
- Listening to music
- Warm bath
- Socializing with friends
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Hanging out with your pets (shout out to my kitties Sushi & Sake!)
Restoring digestive health and resolving digestive issues like IBS, SIBO or acid reflux takes a multi-faceted approach. I don’t want to add more to your to do list and cause more stress :-). So start by using the breathing exercises with meals and let me know how you are feeling.
Check out the next article in the series about how sleep can affect digestion.
Sara Kahn, MS, CNS, CDN is a board-certified nutritionist specializing in digestive health conditions like SIBO, IBS, acid reflux and more. She’s the founder of Belly Bliss Nutrition and the Solving SIBO Program.