The impact of stress on digestion

It’s a usual story: you’re eating well but you don’t feel well. You are eating nutrient-rich foods that you know are good for you, and you are avoiding empty-calorie sugar-filled junk foods. In other words, you have made very positive changes…but it doesn’t seem to be making a difference. In fact, despite these changes, you may even feel worse. These are times when it is easy to slip back into unhealthy habits, as you wonder why try if it isn’t paying off?

But don’t give up: It may be that a sworn enemy to our good health is rearing its ugly head: stress. And why wouldn’t it be? Our lives seem to be moving at such an increasing pace – days are flying by and we never seem to have enough time to do anything. Good for you for taking the time to focus on your diet!  

Stress is a normal part of life. In small quantities, stress is good; it can motivate you and help you become more productive. However, too much stress, or a strong response to stress can be harmful. Our bodies react to stress through a process known as the stress response.  Our bodies perceive stressful events as “threats” and in order to handle the perceived threat, our body’s sympathetic nervous system kicks in, releasing stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. This is also known as a “fight or flight” response.  

These stress hormones have many negative impacts on health. They shut down digestion and digestive secretions and shunt blood away from the gut, so that the tissues do not get enough nutrients or oxygen to remain healthy and strong. Any undigested food feeds unhealthy gut bacteria and they increase in numbers, resulting in dysbiosis, chronic gut inflammation, leaky gut and allergies if left unchecked. 

To explain a little further, our body’s nervous system is composed of different divisions, each with its own roles and responsibilities. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the division that regulates bodily functions such as heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, and sexual arousal, as well as certain reflex actions such as sneezing, coughing and swallowing. The ANS is divided into two branches: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is also known as the “fight or flight” system, while the parasympathetic nervous system is known as the “rest and digest” system. 

When our sympathetic nervous system becomes dominant in response to stress, energy is taken away from processes such as digestion and put toward more immediate needs such as providing increased blood flow to our skeletal muscles and increasing our heart rate.  Stress causes the body to release cortisol, which is produced by the adrenal glands. And if this action becomes chronic, in other words, if we encounter ongoing or significant amounts of stress, it can result in a number of threats to our health. These threats include suppressed immunity (cortisol weakens the immune system), and increased risk of diseases such as heart disease (cortisol signals fat to be deposited particularly in the abdominal area, increasing our risk of heart disease), and diabetes (cortisol affects blood sugar levels). 

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So what can you do to minimize the effects of stress on your health? Well, one way is to eat a healthy diet. Eating well helps to ensure that your body is provided the nutrients it needs to better cope with stress (more on this in my blog “Healthy Ways to De-stress with Foods”). And ensuring proper digestion helps to ensure that your body can absorb those nutrients. To help with digestion, avoid eating on the run (when the fight-or-flight response is activated) and take the time to peacefully chew your food (chewing is an important part of digestion).  Eating more often and in smaller amounts can help lessen the load on your digestive system. These steps, paired with sound stress management techniques will provide your body added support to cope with stress. 

To receive tips on managing stress, join the Active Nutrition community.  And stay tuned for more in my ongoing series on Stress.