Digestion Connection: How Stress Affects Your Gut

Have you ever had a stomachache during a stressful time- or even just a busy day? What about constipation while traveling, maybe an early morning flight outside of your regular schedule? Or maybe it seems like your whole digestive tract speeds up when you’re anxious about something – a performance, public speaking, a new job? This is happening because your “fight or flight” stress response works against optimal digestion.

Your nervous system is still programmed from caveman days with two branches: “fight or flight” and “rest and digest.” You can think of this as “on” (fight or flight) and “off” (rest and digest).  Stress activates the on switch which tells your body to mobilize resources for immediate physical action – fighting off or running away from a saber toothed tiger. As this is happening, all attention and energy is diverted away from rest and digest activities, such as you guessed it…digestion.

Here’s what happens to your body in fight or flight mode to survive an immediate threat:

  • Your brain perceives a stress signal and tells your adrenal glands (two walnut-sized glands that sit on top of your kidneys) to secrete stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol).
  • Those hormones help your body respond in the following ways:
    • More oxygen is supplied to your heart, brain and muscles,
    • Stored energy in the form of glucose is freed up providing you with a surge of energy,
    • Your heart rate increases and blood pressure rises. Blood flow is sent to your arms and legs,
    • Your muscle tense up and,
    • Digestion shuts down. Blood and energy are diverted away from your GI tract and digestive secretions and intestinal motility are stopped. In your body’s wisdom it knows that surviving a tiger attack is more important than digesting your lunch. Your body prioritizes survival making the executive decision that digestion is not needed during an emergency.

Now you may be thinking, “But I’m not as stressed as I would be during a tiger attack.”  True.  However these branches of your nervous system are pretty black and white. They lack the sophistication to know you’re not actually experiencing physical threat from that public speaking gig, work deadline or driving 70 mph during morning traffic. (Well that last example does warrant a possibility of physical danger, but we tend to ignore it since we drive so much.) It’s more like on and off. The on (fight or flight) is an alert state. The off (rest and digest) is like lying in a hammock.

While we’re lounging in a hammock optimal digestion occurs. Blood flow remains in your digestive organs and nerve impulses move your GI tract like an assembly line. Called motility, this assembly line moves food along, breaking it down and pulling out needed nutrients.  Like a wrench thrown in the teeth of a cog, motility is halted in fight or flight mode.  Constipation anyone?

Also in the hammock, important digestive secretions are stimulated:  saliva (which contains digestive enzymes), hydrochloric acid (which is imperative to digest protein, B12 and assist the digestion assembly line further downstream), pancreatic enzymes (to break down carbs, fats and more protein), and bile (to break apart fats). Without these secretions food doesn’t transform into the nutrients you need to power your body and it just sits in your gut like a rock – stomachache or constipated much?

Rest and digest occurs during sleep therefore much digestion occurs during sleep which is why most people have a morning bowel movement.

Ok what about diarrhea – the sped up digestive tract? The theory is for some people during fight or flight their bodies will evacuate any extra baggage in order to be light and nimble for the fighting or fleeing.  In our modern day though, that only leaves you running for the bathroom.

So back to maximizing digestion, when is the last time you laid in a hammock? How often do you eat in your car? To avoid those belly aches and tummy troubles you must spend more time in rest and digest especially while eating.

Find your Rest and Digest mode:

  • Plan breaks in your work day – get up from your desk every hour for a brain break and a few deep breaths.
  • Get outside for a daily walk.
  • Slow down to observe the little things – the color of the leaves, the color of your dogs’ eyes, or the taste of your coffee.
  • Have some fun – laughing is a good way to cease the stress response.
  • Lay in a hammock – really, set one up in your yard, along the creek, in the woods. I dare you.
  • Read a novel.
  • Snuggle with your kids, kitty, puppy or ferret – anything that gives you unconditional love.
  • Start a meditation practice. Read here for tips and benefits.
  • Eat mindfully.

Practice “Mindful Eating” at each meal:

  1. SIT: Sit in a quiet, relaxing place to eat your meal.
  2. STOP: Do not multi-task while eating, such as answering emails, watching TV, working, walking around or driving.
  3. BREATHE: Take 3-5 deep breaths before eating – count to 5 during the inhale and exhale with a pause in between.
  4. PAUSE: Smell your food and notice its colors.
  5. THANK: Give gratitude for: your amazing body and its ability to use this food for fuel, the food itself and the farmers who grew it,1-2 positive things that happened today or that you’re looking forward to.
  6. CHEW: Eat slowly and chew your food – at least 10 chews with each bite. Put your fork down while chewing, and truly taste your food. Not only does this give you awareness of the flavors, chewing assists digestion since it stimulates digestive enzymes and eating slowly helps your stomach tell your brain when you’re full.
  7. PAUSE AGAIN: When you’re finished, before jumping up to your next task, pause for another 3-5 deep breaths.  Then continue on with your day.

Mindful eating facilitates:

  • Communication between your brain/nervous system and digestive tract
  • Better digestion and absorption of your nutrients
  • Satiety to feel full longer leading to less snacking and sugar cravings later
  • More even-balanced blood sugar
  • Relaxation and calmness
  • Better energy, focus and productivity within your day

Create awareness of how your busy day may be affecting your digestion. Sometimes it’s a simple as slowing down.

Happy digesting!



Disclaimer: Nutrition therapy is not intended as a diagnosis, treatment, prescription, or cure for any disease, or as a substitute for medical care. Jen Marshall and Stacy St Germain are not licensed medical providers. Nutrition plans are not intended as a substitution for traditional medical care, nor should be interpreted as medical advice, but instead is an adjunctive and supportive therapy.