For me, the year 2020 often felt like a period of constant stress everywhere from low to moderate and high. This may even be one of the few times that being bored was actually stressful. We’ve turned the page on the calendar and are trying to be optimistic for 2021. Even as our lives get closer to what they once were, the future will be filled with “recovery stress”. The stress of pulling a business back up, getting kids caught back up to academic standards, repleting savings and retirement accounts, and shedding some of those unwanted quarantine habits and pounds. When we are under constant stresses like these, we often notice more, or more extreme, digestive discomforts. That is thanks to the role that stress plays in digestion.
Some people lose their appetite during times of extreme stress. Others are, instead, drawn to food (or drink) to help cope with the anxiety of the situation. For you, it could be both, and may depend on the type of stress and timing of the stress. Regardless, when we find ourselves in a state of stress and then try to eat food, we’re actually increasing our likelihood of reflux and stomach pains, GI discomforts and weight gain.
In December, Jen wrote about how stress impacts your immune system and the importance of the immune cells of the gut, specifically Secretory IgA (SigA). The connection between the immune system and digestion couldn’t be more direct. In this article I’m going to review how stress influences the pathways of digestion to alter our microbiome and deplete important nutrients for our health.
No one can keep stress out of their life completely, but I will share some tips you can use to help you relax before you eat so that stress doesn’t interfere with your digestion.
Stress and the Nervous System
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) takes care of all our unconscious body needs, such as heart rate, breathing, and digestion. You can think of it as the “automatic” nervous system. The ANS breaks down into the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS).
- The SNS is responsible for the body’s response to stress. Also known as the “fight & flight” response. In this response all resources are routed to the organs that enable us to stay alive in the short term. Everything else is low priority.
- The PNS takes care of everything else. Also known as the “rest & digest” state. This state manages the immune system and reproductive system (and other hormones), and is responsible for digestion, supporting detoxification and helping us sleep.
Under stress, the brain automatically triggers the SNS (“fight or flight”) to release messages throughout the body to boost alertness and heart rate and send all of the circulating blood flow to the heart, lungs and muscles. Everything else, including digestion, is put on pause.
Stress & Digestion
When we eat in a normal, relaxed state, the stomach signals the pancreas to release enzymes to help break apart food into smaller molecules. The broken-down food molecules pass through the digestive tract and into the blood stream to be carried to all the different cells of the body. Finally, the last bits of undigested food migrate into the large intestine (colon), where they meet our gut microbiome.
Under stress, the acidity of the stomach and the secretion of digestive enzymes significantly decreases. Blood flow to the gut is also decreased, so the nutrients that do get digested don’t circulate well through the blood stream. Movement of food through the GI tract may speed up, in effort to rid the body of undigested food, resulting in diarrhea. Or it may slow down, causing constipation. Over time, the presence of large undigested food pieces sitting in the digestive tract can promote the growth of bacteria or yeasts that contribute to bloating and gas and negatively impact the gut microbiome.
Stress and the Gut Microbiome
The microbes in your digestive tract help with further digestion and absorption of nutrients and are necessary for your body to create important vitamins, such as vitamin K (important for bone health). They also play a major role in supporting the immune system.
Microbiota in our large intestine directly influence the central nervous system by way of the Vagus Nerve. This is the longest and most complex nerve that runs directly between the brain and the abdomen creating the “gut-brain connection”. In this way, the effect of stress on the microbiome is bidirectional. Meaning, stress can influence the diversity and population of our gut microbiome, but also when the microbiome in our gut is out of balance, we become less tolerant of stress, more depressed and more anxious. .
Stress & Nutrition
Just like driving up a hill requires more gas for your car, operating the body under stress uses up more nutritional resources. You’ll want to improve digestion to make sure you are getting these valuable nutrients. Some vitamins and minerals are under higher demand during stressed states, so it’s important to eat lots of the foods that replete them:
Magnesium: Magnesium is released during times of stress to support the neurotransmitter GABA to help calm the nervous system. A deficiency in magnesium also reduces tolerance to stress making smaller stressors trigger a big reaction.  Magnesium is involved in over 300 different chemical reactions so low magnesium levels have a broad impact.
Magnesium is found in high amounts in pumpkin seeds, almonds, spinach, cashews, black beans and dark chocolate
Zinc: Zinc is a cofactor for over 200 chemical reactions, including the synthesis of cortisol, our stress hormone. When we’re stressed more, the demand for zinc is higher.
Zinc is found in higher amounts in oysters, beef, chicken, pork, and lentils.
Vitamin C: Vitamin C helps the body clear out cortisol from stress and return the body to a “rest and digest” state. Not having enough Vitamin C could make you feel the effects of stress longer. It also means you’ll have less available for skin, bones (vitamin C also makes collagen) and your immune system unless you replace it.
Foods with Vitamin C are kiwi, strawberries, bell peppers, oranges, broccoli, tomato, snow peas and kale.
Antioxidants: One of the natural byproducts of stress in the body is an increase in free radicals. (Free radicals are molecules that float around looking for a balancing electron and wrecking everything on the way). Antioxidants are molecules that bond to free radicals to prevent damage to cells.
Get more antioxidants into the diet with turmeric, ginger, dark chocolate, colorful berries, artichokes, kale, spinach, red cabbage, beets and beans
You can get these nutrients back from your foods; ideally, when the stress is managed, and you are ready to “rest and digest”.
Tips for Reducing Stress to Improve Digestion
No one can magically remove the stressors in life. Fortunately, you can improve digestion and nutrient absorption by helping your body get into a relaxed state. With a little planning and conscious effort you can help your nervous system into a state where it’s better able to rest and digest for your meal. Here are a few techniques to help relax before you eat:
- Slow down your movements before you eat. Literally walk and move slowly. Rushing around is something you do under stress.
- Put on some calming music or nature sounds, like a bubbling brook, ocean waves, or just some white noise.
- Put your feet flat on the floor to help signal your body that you’re grounded to the earth.
- Touch your lips by gently running your fingers back and forth a few times. There are nerves connected to your parasympathetic nervous system in your lips.
- Think of a happy memory or pull up a photo and smile. Smiling releases endorphins that cause tense muscles to relax.
- Imagine a calm, peaceful place to help you relax. Make sure to consider all your senses – how it looks, smells, and feels.
- Take long, slow deep breaths into your belly. Place your right hand over your heart to feel your heartbeat and connect to your breathing.
- Take your time with your meal and eat slowly. If you’re eating fast, you’re probably gulping down your food and missing the digestion that happens when you chew. Also, your body needs time to send and receive the messages that you’re eating -and that you’re full!
“It’s not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.”
Hans Selye, a pioneer in the understanding of human stress
More on Stress & Digestion
Do You Love What you Eat? (More on Cephalic Phase Digestion)
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.