Life is busy. And stressful.
Stress effects the entire physical body, and if you’re someone prone to digestive issues, you know how much it can mess with your gut. The scientific literature, too, continues to confirm that the relationship between the gut and brain, often called the gut-brain axis, is an extremely intimate one.
When we’re very stressed, our body is in “fight or flight” mode, which is the part of our nervous system that redirects energy and resources away from the gut. The more we can instead access the “rest and digest” state before eating, the better our digestion will be. Keep reading for tips on how to do this!
How Stress Affects the Gut
When we’re nervous, anxious, or stressed, stress hormones are released and affect our gut health in the following ways:
- Shift the balance of our gut microbiome to favor more inflammatory species than beneficial ones.
- Suppress digestive secretions such as stomach acid and enzymes, which are needed to break down our food.
- Speed up or slow motility, which is the way food moves through your gut.
- Redirect blood away from the digestive system.
- Increase intestinal permeability, known as “leaky gut”.
Clearly, stress presents many obstacles to healthy digestion.
Digestive Symptoms from Stress
Because stress suppresses digestive enzyme and stomach acid production, food doesn’t get broken down properly, which leads to gas and bloating. Some may also notice undigested food in their stool. Furthermore, when motility is altered as it is under stress, gas cannot move through and gets “trapped,” causing abdominal pain.
Diarrhea and/or constipation are other common symptoms of a gut under stress. This can be due to changes in motility, which can either cause food to travel too fast or too slow through the intestines. It can also result from stress hormones increasing “bad” species of bacteria or allowing bacteria and fungi to overgrow.
3 Easy Ways to Slip into “Rest and Digest” State
If you can’t get a break from high stress levels throughout the day, at least try to find some calm at mealtimes! The following are simple, accessible, and impactful ways to slip into a “rest and digest” state before eating.
- Take 3-5 deep breaths before eating
Usually the first thing to go when we’re stressed is our breath. Long, deep, breathing is an easy, quick, and FREE thing you can do to start switching into a more relaxed state. Taking just 3-5 deep breaths before each meal can help switch into “rest and digest” mode and prime your system for better digestion.
2. Eat away from screens (especially work-related ones)
Eating away from screens, your desk, and other distractions helps you focus on your food and thoroughly chew, which is an action that nothing other than your teeth can do! If you find it difficult to close down screens at all meal times, at least try to eat away from stress-inducing ones… like your work computer.
Another bonus of separating food from screen time is that it makes us more mindful of what we’re eating, so that instead of scarfing down food, we experience it more fully and feel more satisfied by it.
3. Keep the conversation positive around the dinner table
In the same way that eating in front of your work computer can keep the stress hormones surging, having hard conversations around the dinner table prevents your body from relaxing into your “rest and digest” state. If at all possible, try to keep anxiety-inducing topics for after meal times and focus on enjoying your food.
Stress can feel overwhelming, but taking small steps to relax before eating don’t have to be! I encourage you to try one of these strategies this week, and see how it goes.
Finally, if you feel like stress is ruling your life and affecting your digestion, a therapist can help with further stress management techniques and a nutritionist can guide you through other dietary and supplemental strategies to rebalance your gut.
Carabotti M, Scirocco A, Maselli MA, Severi C. The gut-brain axis: interactions between enteric microbiota, central and enteric nervous systems. Ann Gastroenterol. 2015;28(2):203-209.
J.A. Foster, L. Rinaman, J.F. Cryan. Stress & the gut-brain axis: regulation by the microbiome. Neurobiol. Stress, 7 (2017), pp. 124-136
Karl JP, Hatch AM, Arcidiacono SM, et al. Effects of Psychological, Environmental and Physical Stressors on the Gut Microbiota. Front Microbiol. 2018;9:2013. Published 2018 Sep 11. doi:10.3389/fmicb.2018.02013