How your Stress Levels May be Impacting your Digestion (and 5 Ways you Can Change That)
By: Brittany Nicholson - Registered Holistic Nutritionist + Certified Personal Trainer
Hands up if you have been feeling the stress lately? Know that you are not alone, we all know that stress management is important, but did you know that it plays a role in digestion as well? Prolonged stress (whether physical, psychological, or physiological) disrupts the state of balance in the body, and when it is not appropriately managed it puts us at risk of a number of diseases.
Let’s chat about the science behind our stress response. Cortisol is a hormone that is produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress. We need cortisol to regulate blood sugar, blood pressure, and immune system function. It also governs our hunger cravings, digestion, sleep/wake patterns, physical activity, and our ability to deal with stress.
When you encounter a stressor, cortisol mobilizes blood sugar, diverts blood away from digestion and towards the skeletal muscles (helloooo fight or flight response). This raises your blood pressure, increasing blood flow to your brain. These physical reactions are all designed to protect you from imminent danger or physical threats in your external environment.
Now, the problem we have with modern society, is that this SAME stress response is evoked when dealing with EMOTIONAL stress, like dealing with issues of job security, financial concerns, worrying about finding the time in your day to do all of the things that need doing. Your bills aren’t chasing you around like an angry lion, but your cortisol levels would say otherwise! These chronically high levels of cortisol can contribute to adrenal fatigue.
Can stress impact your digestion? ABSOLUTELY.
Stress initially increases stomach hydrochloric acid production, contributing to indigestion, heartburn, gastritis, and ulcer problems. As these acid levels increase, the pancreas is called upon more frequently to release alkaline enzymes to help balance this acidity. Over time, chronic stress can lead to hypochlorhydria (low stomach acid) and reduced function of the pancreas, resulting in poor digestion and assimilation of nutrients.
In order to best support digestion, we should be supporting our Rest and Digest nervous system. This is a section of your autonomic nervous system that is responsible for many involuntary actions in the body, but plays a big role in digestion as it stimulates the release of saliva to promote digestion releases bile for the digestion of fats, and initiates peristalsis, or the wave-like movement of intestines that moves food through the gastrointestinal tract.
Here are 5 ways you can manage stress levels for better digestion:
- Deep Breaths Before Mealtime
Add some deep breathing exercises before mealtime to help shift into the “rest and digest” nervous system before a meal, to encourage better digestion in the process.
- Focus on Nutrient-dense Whole Foods During Periods of Stress
A diet rich in high-nutrient foods is essential when we are undergoing periods of stress due to the fact that stress increases cellular activity which leads to increased nutrient usage. Nutrient depletions may aggravate the damaging effects of stress. In addition to increased cellular needs during stress, some of us neglect ourselves when we get busy, avoiding meals (especially wholesome ones) opting for convenience food, coffee, or sugar for quick energy. Nutrients that are particularly vulnerable to being depleted by stress include the antioxidant vitamins A, E, C and B vitamins, as well as the minerals zinc, selenium, calcium, magnesium, iron, and potassium.
- Try Not to Eat on the Run or While Working
As we have learned, stress paralyzes digestion. So to support better digestion, try creating a peaceful mealtime environment, so we can easily shift into the “Rest and Digest” nervous system for optimal digestion. This means not eating on the run, in the car, while working, or watching TV.
- Add Mindful Movement to your Routine
Physical activity can help to clear your mind and keep stress under control. Choose an activity that feels right for you, like a refreshing walk, run, bike, or class at the gym, and make restorative forms of exercise a priority, like yoga, for its gentle stretching benefits.
- Reach for Adaptogens for Stress Support
Adaptogens are uniquely able to help the body adapt to stressful situations, helping us perform better, despite being stressed out. Adaptogens like ashwagandha found in Clover’s Rest Adaptogenic tea blend help to balance stress hormones and naturally encourage the body’s resistance to stress, while encouraging a relaxing sleep with the addition of valerian, chamomile and lavender.