Many of us attribute our digestive problems to our diet but have you ever considered how stress could
be impacting your digestion?
When we stress, our body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode. This means that our body’s blood and energy is diverted away from our digestive system. It is instead, sent to our muscles to prepare us to flee from imminent danger. For our ancestors, stress levels would have skyrocketed if we were say, chased by a lion. But this would dissipate once the threat was gone. Nowadays we have replaced the lion with emails, phone calls and deadlines (and whatever family drama and personal issues that may arise).
Back then, the threat of the lion is temporary. Either you escape, or it eats you. These modern-day stressors can affect us for months or years – if not decades.
Depending on the level of stress we experience, our digestion can slow down or stop completely. If what we eat isn’t fully digested and absorbed, it becomes food for our gut bacteria which feeds and produces gas. The more undigested food we have in our intestines, the more gas that is produced. This makes us feel bloated and gassy which can be accompanied with abdominal pain and discomfort.
In short, stress -> undigested food -> increased gas -> bloating and discomfort. Simple.
If you want to avoid this, here are 6 stress reduction tips for improved digestion.
1. Relax before eating
Rushing to have dinner ready by a certain time can get the adrenaline pumping. So we are often stressed when we sit down to eat. Try doing 10-15 deep breaths right before eating to relax your
body and improve digestion. You might prefer meditation or yoga instead – whatever it takes to settle in for a delicious meal.
2. Limit caffeine
Caffeine is a stimulant which puts your body in ‘fight or flight’ mode just like any other psychological stress. Energy drinks and coffee generally have the highest caffeine content so I would recommend swapping them for caffeine free substitutes (eg. chicory coffee or you know…water) or gradually weaning yourself off these products altogether.
3. Take a seat
Having a dedicated time and place to eat can allow your body to properly digest food. Also ensure you chew your food thoroughly as that’s where it all starts! Try sitting down to eat without any distractions. This means no eating in front of the computer at work or eating breakfast on the way to work. You want to eat in a completely relaxed state so that plenty of stomach acid and enzymes are excreted to break down all your food.
4. Eat whole grains and less refined sugar
Stabilising your blood sugar levels is essential to minimising the stress load on your body. When you eat something high in sugar (eg. sweet drinks, cookies) your blood sugar levels spike up high and then come crashing down. This drop in blood sugar makes you hungry, irritable and tired. Every time this happens, it stresses your body out just like a psychological stress would. Therefore, aim to include high fibre whole grains with adequate protein and healthy fats at each meal to keep your blood sugars nice and stable.
Regular physical activity is such an effective way to relieve stress and tension in the body. It also releases endorphins which are our feel-good hormones! Studies have shown 90% improvements in perceived stress and anxiety in people with PTSD after simply implementing exercise into their daily regime.
We should be aiming for at least 7-8 hours of sleep every night with 10pm-2am being the prime time to be asleep. Exposure to morning sunlight, limiting caffeine and regular exercise are all great ways to help promote better quality sleep. Our digestive systems also need a break to repair and recover as they are busy digesting food throughout the day so good quality sleep can help tremendously with digestive issues too.
Clearly stress has a major impact on our digestion. There are, however, other factors such as diet that may be contributing to your issues.
If you feel like you’ve tried everything but are still having problems with excessive bloating, gas, constipation or diarrhea, please seek help from a qualified Accredited Practising Dietitian who has
experience in this area.
About the author – Grace Kim
Grace is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutritionist with a passion for all things food- whether it be eating, cooking or admiring. Having struggled with both weight and gut issues herself, she understands how difficult yet powerful a change of diet can be. With over 5 years of experience in the natural health and nutrition industry, she uses a holistic and evidence-based approach to treat not only the symptoms but also the root cause of the problem.