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How Stress Gets In The Way Of Digestion (Plus, 3 Ways To Calm Down)

Image by Ivan Gener / Stocksy
November 10, 2019

Ever notice how your thoughts and emotions can influence or create a certain physical sensation in the body? This happens throughout our day, sometimes without conscious awareness.

Let's try an experiment: Think about cutting an orange in half, looking at the pulp with its juices flowing, and now think about eating that orange. What happened? Did you start salivating? That's how connected our minds and bodies are. Images and thoughts can start to create a physical response in our body.

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One of our systems that gets affected immediately when this process happens is digestion. Most people think digestion starts in our mouth with chewing our foods, but digestion itself actually starts in the brain1. Why should you care about this? Because your thoughts and emotions can influence how well you digest your food, and you aren't, in fact, what you eat; you are what you digest!

Let's dive in to how stress affects digestion and what you can do about it. 

What stress does to your body. 

Think about when you are feeling a negative emotion like stress. How does that affect your physical body, particularly the digestive system? As a nutritional psychologist, optimizing mental health is an important part of how I help implement positive dietary changes and optimize physical well-being for my clients.

You might not realize it, but when you are stressed, your digestive system is affected. Almost instantly your salivary glands aren't nearly as activated2, and your digestive juices aren't flowing at the same frequency as when we are relaxed.

Stress triggers the sympathetic nervous system, telling you your body is getting ready for action. It's time to either fight, fly, or freeze. This overrides the relaxed state, or the parasympathetic nervous system3, shutting down less important functions like digestion.

The consequences of eating while stressed.

When you are stressed, your digestion is compromised before you even put food in your mouth, increasing your risk for developing digestive distress like heartburn and leaky gut.

Stress compromises peristalsis4, which is the constriction and relaxation of the intestinal muscles and what helps move the food through the intestines. In other words, it's essential for food absorption and waste elimination.

Additionally, your body's ability to produce stomach acid is compromised5 when you are feeling stressed. If you don't have adequate stomach acid, you may not be able to fully digest all of the food, particularly proteins. Stomach acid also helps protect us from pathogenic bacteria and viruses, making stomach acid important for not only digestion but overall health.

Another hugely important consequence that occurs as a result of stress is the impact it has on our gut bacteria. Research has shown that stress can actually cause changes in the composition of our gut bacteria. This can have many implications as our gut bacteria play an important role in digestion, the immune system, and even producing neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine that affect mood.

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3 ways to de-stress before you eat.

What you digest your body uses for fuel, so you want to make sure that your brain and your body are getting the most out of the food you are eating. One way to do this is by getting into a parasympathetic state when you are about to eat your food. This will calm you down and limit the effects of stress on your digestive process.

Here are some tips to try to get you feeling calm before you take your first bite:

1.

Try belly breaths.

Try taking some deep belly breaths before you sit down to eat. This will directly communicate to your physiology that it's time to relax and prepare for digestion, allowing your digestive enzymes and stomach acid to activate and start flowing. 

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2.

Chew consciously.

Take your time and chew consciously. Put your fork down after every bite to try to tune into the present moment and connect with the sensory experience of eating this delicious food. This allows for slowness to enter into experience, allowing the mind to quiet and experience only what is happening right now. 

3.

Ditch the distractions.

Yes, this means putting your cellphone down! This allows for the ability to focus on the experience of eating. This will help your body digest and relax as much as possible. This can be difficult at first, especially if you're used to eating quickly and multitasking while eating, but it is worth it. 

Try to practice this as well and as consciously as you can, and start noticing what happens as a result of making this change. Are you enjoying more of what you are eating? Are you feeling less stressed doing so? Are you experiencing less digestive upset as a result? Chances are, you will start noticing a difference in how you feel after meals. 

Want to turn your passion for wellbeing into a fulfilling career? Become a Certified Health Coach! Learn more here.
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Nicole Lippman-Barile, Ph.D
Nicole Lippman-Barile, Ph.D
Holistic Psychologist

Nicole Lippman-Barile, Ph.D, is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and nutritional therapy practitioner. She received her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Hofstra University and nutritional therapy practitioner certification from the Nutritional Therapy Association. As a holistic clinical psychologist, she specializes in Cognitive Behavior Therapy and is an OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) specialist, providing individual and group therapy for those with anxiety and mood disorders.

Lippman-Barile integrates nutritional therapy as part of psychotherapy, using food and holistic lifestyle practices as medicine to support mental health and wellness. Her mission is to provide integrated and holistic care for individuals with mental health struggles and dietary challenges.