Skip to content

How Stressing About What You Eat Changes How You Digest It

Emily Kelleher
August 31, 2023
Emily Kelleher
Editorial Operations Manager
By Emily Kelleher
Editorial Operations Manager
Emily Kelleher is the editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. Her work has appeared in Shape, Well + Good, Greatist, Romper, Fatherly, and more.
Unrecognizable Woman Eating a Bowl of Cereal In Her Kitchen
Image by Santi Nunez / Stocksy
August 31, 2023

Trigger warning: This article discusses stress around food choices. Those who struggle with an unhealthy relationship with food can visit the National Eating Disorders Association for support

In a culture where food is categorized anywhere from "good or bad," to "practically medicinal or ostensibly toxic," deciding what to eat can be a stressful experience. For people with allergies and digestive disorders who have painful or even life-threatening reactions to certain foods, it's even more trying.

Of course, it's only natural to want to fuel ourselves with nourishing food and avoid anything that might make us sick. But being overly stressed about food choices can make us unwell faster than any "bad" food ever could. 

Here's why stressing out about what you eat changes how you digest it—and how to begin to break free from food anxiety.

How stress impacts digestion 

When faced with perceived danger, your body's stress response sets off a cascade of physiological symptoms, from hormone changes to blood sugar shifts.

Our adaptive response to stress may lengthen the time it takes for food to move through the digestive tract, slow the production of digestive secretions, and make the muscle contractions involved in digestion sluggish, says Christine Cherpak-Castagna, Ph.D., a nutritionist and adjunct faculty member at the Maryland University of Integrative Health. 

Acute stress may also temporarily change the composition of the microbiome1, says Marvin Singh, M.D., an integrative gastroenterologist.

This causes food eaten in a stressed-out state to get a less-than-fair chance of optimal digestion.

For example, let's say you eat a big breakfast, and then while driving to work, someone cuts you off, causing some stress. Later, you struggle with indigestion. "Your body felt that stress, and as a result, your motility was altered, and the food that was sitting in your stomach didn't get out of your stomach as fast as it should have. You feel the effects of that." 

Both experts note that these effects might include indigestion, bloating, nausea, heartburn, stomach pain, constipation, or diarrhea. Chronic, long-term stress is also a documented precursor to inflammatory bowel disease2 (IBD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

How to disrupt the stress response

For those who have a stressful relationship with food, mindful eating may be particularly useful. 

"Mindful eating encourages individuals to be present—without judgment—through all phases of eating, naturally prompting parasympathetic dominance and, thus, 'rest and digest,'" Cherpak-Castagna says. "This state of calm and relaxation supports optimal digestion."

There's some research to back this up: One randomized controlled trial in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that participants who completed mindfulness-based stress reduction exercises experienced fewer IBS symptoms3 than a control group. Another 2011 study on women with IBS who completed eight weeks of mindfulness training came to a similar conclusion.

Other research suggests mindful eating could also mediate the negative health effects of poor body image. A 2022 study found that intuitive eating, a form of mindful eating, buffers the harmful effects of internalized weight stigma4 (IWS) on body mass index (BMI). Existing research shows that IWS is positively correlated with a high BMI. This study examined a group of stressed adults with poor diet quality, finding that for those who practiced high levels of intuitive eating, the link between IWS and BMI did not hold true. 

How to eat more mindfully

Cherpak-Castagna authored a 2019 review outlining the digestive benefits of several components of mindful eating5. Here are a few of her takeaways to begin putting into practice:

  • Eating slowly helps break down food, helps saliva bind to food, and promotes the production of enzymes in saliva that trigger other digestive processes. 
  • Meditation helps shift the nervous system to parasympathetic dominance, a state that supports digestion.
  • Paying attention to hunger cues helps us become more aware of hunger and fullness.
  • Using the senses to notice taste, texture, smell, and look helps us notice different components of food, trigger the release of digestive secretions, and better identify emotions attached to certain foods.
  • Practicing nonjudgmental awareness allows thoughts to come and go so we're less likely to ascribe strict good and bad labels to foods, making the stress response less likely. 

Another great way to improve the health of a meal is to share it with friends or family. A key component of the Mediterranean diet, which has been linked to better cardiovascular health6, a reduced risk of cancer7, and, ultimately, a longer life span8, is eating with loved ones9. Doing so takes a meal beyond the sum of its nutrients and transforms it into a source of connection and meaning.

The takeaway

Eating healthy (whatever that means for you) is important, but being preoccupied about food choices can do more harm than good. Stress disrupts digestion by slowing gastric emptying and changing the gut microbiome, which can cause nausea, indigestion, heartburn, and stomach pain.

To soothe stress, try mindful eating tools like deep breathing, paying attention to how food impacts all five senses, and practicing nonjudgmental awareness about the many feelings food might bring up for you. For a more detailed primer on how to build a healthier relationship with food, head here.