The relationship between stress, eating, and digestion is complex and fascinating. Stress manipulates our desires, influencing our choices on what and when to eat. Stress changes the way we digest food, from our stomach, through our intestines, and down to every cell.
What’s Going On
What kinds of foods do we long for when we’re stressed…a nice, balanced meal? Of course not! We crave sweets, starches, and fats. What’s more, stress causes these yummy foods to be stored in our bodies as abdominal fat. This may sound like cruel self-sabotage on the body’s part, but it’s actually an act of self-preservation. Sweets release happy chemicals from our brain, soothing our frazzled nerves, and the fat storage is our body trying to save up for the next bout of panic.
If the effects of stress simply meant we’d eat a few extra cookies and gain a little chub, it might not be such a big deal, but it doesn’t stop there. Chronic stress causes dysfunction and inflammation in the gut, leading to a wide array of health issues like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), peptic ulcer disease, IBD, IBS, and even food allergies. The longer we’re stressed, the worse the effects.
How to Deal
1. Know yourself.
People react to stress in two different ways: About 2/3 of us are hyperphagic, meaning that when we get stressed, we eat more. The remaining 1/3 are hypophagic, and stress makes their appetite go down. You might think that hypophagics have the advantage here, but when the stress levels come back down, they’re just as likely to binge. You probably already know which of these types you are, and knowing is half the battle.
Do more self-research and look for other patterns. Does social anxiety send you to the snack table at parties? Does a looming work deadline give you cravings for mom’s famous mac and cheese? Do you “treat” yourself to a midafternoon coffee and pastry on a difficult workday? Don’t judge. Just notice.
Look for opportunities to de-stress around eating. The easiest and quickest relaxation tool is always available to you: your breath. Before eating, take 5 minutes to focus on taking big, slow, deep breaths. At the same time, feel your heart rate and see if you can slow it down. Let any thoughts that arise gently drift away. Now your body is in a better state to begin digestion.
3. Set the stage.
There’s a frightening trend towards eating on the run and multitasking during meals, and frankly, it’s killing us. You owe it to yourself and your loved ones to create more opportunities to eat in a harmonious environment. If you’re eating at home with your loved ones, it might simply be a matter of setting an attractive table along with some good intentions for behavior. But if you’re at work, it might be more challenging.
As much as possible, clear away distractions during eating. Turn off your monitor, silence your smart phone, shut off the news, and be with your meal. Social time during meals can be beneficial if it feels positive, but if it’s causing stress, ditch it. If you can’t commit to eating a whole meal in peace, try for at least 5 or 10 distraction-free minutes. Every little bit makes a difference.
4. Savor your food.
How many meals have you finished that you hardly even tasted? What would it be like to truly savor every bite? Try checking in with yourself periodically throughout your meal. Are you enjoying the sight, taste, and texture of your meal? Do you notice when you're starting to get full? Look for signs of satisfaction or longing for something more.
Finally, as you finish up, notice your overall state. Do you feel happy, satisfied, and relaxed? This is another opportunity to breathe and release, especially in your belly muscles. In a perfect world, you’d have time for a leisurely walk or a pleasant chat after every meal, but sometimes that’s not possible. Try taking a minute or two to close your eyes and clear your mind, or perhaps a quick walk around the building.
The body is busy digesting long after we have finished our meal, and digestion takes a lot of energy! When we’re stressed, our bodies take energy away from the digestion process and redirect it to other areas of the body. So, while de-stressing before, during, and after meals is important, any efforts you make to rest and relax throughout the day are bound to benefit your digestive process and overall health.
I hope you meet your next meal with peace and joy!