Stress and Digestion: Could The Way You Eat Be Adding to Your Stress?

8. Lunch by Brooke Lark

In our modern times and fast-paced lifestyles, most of us feel “stressed” at least some, if not a majority of the time. If you take a minute to think about all the things in your life that can promote stress you might come up with things like: tension in relationships, deadlines at work, family obligations/ expectations, school assignments, a traffic-filled commute, financial worries or your feelings when reading political posts on social media. These are some examples of stressors that are obvious to us. When we are stressed because of them, we actually feel the stress. We feel anxious, worried, rushed, pre-occupied or upset. We know for sure that certain situations or people can spike our stress levels. But what about the stressors that we cannot see…the “hidden” stressors?

Your body perceives all stress as essentially the same on a chemical cellular level. It doesn’t distinguish between you getting in an argument with a family member and an internal stressor like a nutrient deficient diet. Some “hidden” stressors that may be adding to your total stress load in the body can be things like: a lack of enough restorative sleep, not getting sufficient movement, a lack of enjoyable relationships, eating in a sympathetic state vs. a parasympathetic state, tensing or stiffening body without realizing it throughout the day, allergies (whether food or environmental), heavy metals burden, tooth & gum decay, chemicals in water you drink, pesticides and herbicides on food you eat and in the air you breathe, chronic infections and toxic cleaning products/ cosmetics (xenoestrogens).

Even low blood sugar is perceived as “stress” to your body. The adrenals pump out epinephrine and cortisol (stress hormones) each time your blood sugar dips down too low. Think about all those times you have gotten “hangry” and had symptoms of too low blood sugar like shakiness, irritability, or weakness.

A big source of potential “hidden” stress: our digestion

Given that our digestive process actually begins in the brain when we see, smell, and think about food; we need to be in a parasympathetic state (relaxed and primed for digestion) in order to be set up to actually absorb the nutrients from our meals. If the body is not in this optimal parasympathetic state before eating, then it will be in a sympathetic, or “fight or flight” state which promotes being able to flee from danger quickly. The body, in its innate wisdom, sends blood flow to the extremities and away from the digestive organs so that it is ready to run away from a threat, but this is not helpful when we are actually wanting to assimilate nutrition and energy from our food.

Another way stress can affect our ability to properly digest our food is the fact that we are often guilty of wolfing or shoveling down our food in a massive hurry because we need to get to the next thing or appointment on our list. Unfortunately, this haste can make a huge difference on how our digestive process works. When we chew eat bite thoroughly (at least 20 times) before swallowing, there is time for the enzymes present in our saliva to start breaking down our food. It also gives the brain enough time to signal to the stomach to produce enough acidity so that when the food gets there, it will be broken down sufficiently. The stomach requires an extremely acidic environment (pH of 1.5-3) to do its job properly.

Without the proper pH in the stomach, the pancreas will not be signaled to provide enzymes at the right time and the gallbladder will not be able to make bile to aid in the absorption of fatty acids. Then, when these undigested fatty molecules get to the small intestines, the fact that there are these and other undigested food particles (proteins) can cause the intestinal lining to become permeable (leaky gut), allowing these large particles to leave through the lining and enter the bloodstream. This is very problematic because they are then perceived as “foreign invaders” in the body, creating an assault on the immune system. What should be a good thing for your body (nutrients from food) has now become a bad thing (a perceived threat to immunity).

In addition to this, once undigested fats reach the colon, they will cause a disruption to the healthy flora (bacteria) there. When there is not enough healthy flora in the colon, the butyric acid, which strengthens the cells of the colon, will not be produced. With weakened cells, the colon then loses its tone and is greatly subject to inflammation and autoimmune issues like IBS, eczema, chronic fatigue, acne, endometriosis, rosacea, Crohn’s disease, Celiac, dermatitis, and MS.

So, as you can see, managing our stress in order to improve our ability to digest food is very important.

Some Ways to Manage Both Obvious and Hidden Stressors:

  • Minimize time spent with “energy robbers”
  • Eat as close to a real whole foods diet as possible, minimize processed foods
  • Meditation, prayer, deep breathing or other “calming” activity daily
  • Make sure your exercise choices are enjoyable and not “punishment”
  • Seek out a supportive social community
  • Slow down at meals, be present and not distracted while digesting food, chew each bite thoroughly
  • Laugh! Read funny books, watch funny movies/TV
  • Make sure you are getting all the nutrients your body needs. Common deficiencies are: zinc, magnesium, B Vitamins, and essential fatty acids
  • Support your liver by minimizing toxins like alcohol, caffeine, prescription drugs, NSAIDS, and Over The Counter drugs
  • Support your gut with probiotics/ probiotic rich foods/ drinks

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