How Anxiety Affects Nutrient Absorption, From A Nutrition Expert
I can still taste the chocolate...
I'm on the coast of Mexico with my husband celebrating our anniversary. The weather is ideal. The beaches are pristine and beautiful. And then there's the food. Fresh, juicy papaya. Rich, creamy guacamole. Ginger-lime juice. Thick, rustic masa tacos bursting with spice-rubbed local fish. Sweet chili pepper tamales. And the bread! Warm and crusty with pockets of melted chocolate tucked inside. I eat all of it! I mean all of it. Being in the moment like this, free of worry and actually enjoying every bite, is a big departure for me, someone who meticulously plans every meal ahead of time.
I left Mexico feeling happy, energized, and lighter in every sense of the word. Has this ever happened to you? You go away, eat differently (or more!), and then come home feeling better than ever? How can this be? This is what is known as the vacation paradox. You feel this way because you relax when you're away. You've left the Food Noise back home. Your mind is no longer stuck in that stressful soundtrack of I feel guilty, Why don't I have any willpower? and Is this really organic?
When you eat in a relaxed way (whether you're on vacation or not), your body is more receptive to taking in the experience, and you receive the full nutritional benefits of the foods you eat. Why? Because you released some of your daily stress!
Stress is a nutrient blocker.
That's right. Stress is the ultimate anti-nutrient. If you're stressed out, your mind thundering with Food Noise and limiting beliefs about eating and food, you will be unable to absorb all of the macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals in the food you're eating. You can load up your plate with kale, quinoa, salmon, avocado, and all kinds of other incredibly nutritious food, but if you're in an anxious state of mind when you sit down to eat, then your body will not receive all the nourishment from that meal. What's happening in your mind is just as important as what you're tossing into your grocery cart.
Of course, if you're only tossing in packaged, processed, and other low-quality foods, you can't magically relax those foods into nutrient-dense powerhouses. Relaxation plus high-quality food choices are the ideal way to go. Your mind and your mouth are connected, and both matter when it comes to rewriting your food story.
Here's how it works: When you feel agitated, worried, or tense while eating, this stressed-out mood actually changes your body's physiology. Quick side note here: You may not think you're stressed out at the table, but if you're hearing Food Noise, trust me, you are stressed. This is a low-level stress, but it is still stress.
Any guilt, judgment about health, or shame about your choices is perceived as a stressor by the brain and turns on your sympathetic nervous system, triggering your body's stress response, also known as the fight-or-flight mode. To your body, any kind of stress means, "Danger!" which kicks off a series of events to get you primed to deal with it.
How your body reacts to stressors.
What happens? Well, several things. Your sympathetic nervous system directs the body to produce more cortisol, a stress hormone. Your muscles tense. Your heart starts beating fast. Your blood pressure rises. Your blood sugar goes up. Your appetite increases, especially for sugary, high-carb foods. Your thyroid becomes sluggish, meaning your metabolism slows down. Your digestion shuts off. And your immune system is compromised. With all of this going on, especially having a digestive system offline, how can your body process that colorful, nutrient-dense dinner you prepared? In short, it can't, or at least not fully and completely.
When you're stressed, your body is triggered to protect itself, preserve energy, and store more fat, not digest and assimilate the nutrients in food. Plus your senses are impaired, so your food just doesn't taste as good, and you don't experience as much pleasure from your food as when you're relaxed.
Over time, all of this stress doesn't just hamper the digestive system, it can seriously damage it, weakening the lining of your gut, increasing its permeability (commonly referred to as leaky gut), and harming your microbiome, the collection of bacteria that help break down food.
Crazy, right? All that's happening because of those anxious thoughts about food. When most people think of sources of stress, they think of losing a job, financial challenges, an accident or injury, a health concern, or the loss of a loved one. Or more everyday situations like a tight deadline at work or a driver swerving into your lane on the highway. We don't realize that what's going on in our minds—I'm going to gain weight, I need to change my body, I should eat fewer carbs—can trigger our stress response, too.
Your body reacts with exactly the same cascade of hormonal changes whether it's an event or a thought that sets off the stress response alarm. And to make things worse, it doesn't matter whether your thoughts are true or not. As long as you believe them, then you can create a stress response.
The big takeaway: What you think has a powerful effect on digestion, and your stressful thoughts start a hormonal cascade that affects your every bite!
Excerpt from the book Food Story: Rewrite the Way You Eat, Think, and Live by Elise Museles © 2021 Elise Museles, reprinted with permission from the author and the publisher, Sounds True, Inc.
Elise Museles holds four certificates in holistic health and integrative healing. She is on the Environmental Working Group board of directors and has been a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant recipient for five years in a row. A sought-after speaker, she is also host of the popular Once Upon a Food Story podcast. Her work has been featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, Forbes, Health, In Touch, Self, ELLE, The Chalkboard, and other outlets. For more mindset tips and mouthwatering recipes, visit elisemuseles.com or check out her new book Food Story: Rewrite the Way You Eat, Think, and Live.