Stress + Digestive Health

Let me start this conversation by saying that digestive health is very complex, and I won’t be able to go into all the details or answer everyone’s digestive issues, but I did want to raise awareness to the connection between stress and digestion.


Recently on my Instagram stories, I shared how I personally have been struggling with some uncomfortable digestive issues – stomach pain and bloating – and I’ve made the connection to stress. I’m humbled to admit, this isn’t the first time this year that I have had physical symptoms as a result of stress. Managing stress as an entrepreneur and a highly sensitive person has been one of my biggest challenges recently and has opened my mind to the effects of stress on our health, especially digestion.

I bring this up because I know countless women struggle with digestive issues (whether chronic or every so often), and the common recommendation I hear is to cut out certain foods, namely sugar, gluten, dairy, and processed foods. While in some circumstance certain foods may be causing digestive issues, food is often times not the main issue and cutting foods out could in fact cause more digestive distress.

So, I wanted to take some time explaining the gut-brain connection and how stress can play a role in digestive issues, how clean eating could be culprit for stress, as well as some tools for reducing stress. I am not a health care provider, so what I share here does not replace diagnoses and treatments if you have SIBO or IBS. However, if you are having digestive issues, I encourage you to try some of these tips first before cutting out foods.

DIGESTION EXPLAINED

As I mentioned above, digestive issues are complex. Multiple factors, including biological, psychological, and social, all play a role in the development of digestive issues. The relationship between environmental or psychological stress and gastrointestinal distress is complex and bidirectional – stress can trigger and worsen gastrointestinal pain and other symptoms, and vice versa.

Life-sustaining functions like breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure, and body temperature are regulated by the autonomic nervous system, which is made of two major divisions – sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system triggers the “fight or flight” response. The parasympathetic nervous system calms the body down after the danger has passed. Both of these interact with the enteric nervous system, which helps regulate digestion. Our gut is so connected with our nervous system and brain that it is often referred to as the “second brain,” which is highly sensitive to stress.

HOW STRESS IMPACTS DIGESTION

During high levels of stress (fight or flight), digestion slows or stops so the body can divert energy to facing perceived stress. During times of less severe stress, digestion may slow down or be temporarily disrupted causing abdominal pain and other symptoms of digestive distress. The more stressed your gut perceives the brain to be, the more your gut is going to take into account what the brain is saying and react.

Stress can come in many forms, from work, home life, environment, busy schedules, over-exercise, not enough sleep, perceived stress, and diet. Let’s focus on diet for a minute, because I want to present the idea that our feelings around food could have more of an impact on our digestive symptoms versus the food itself?

THE CONNECTION BETWEEN FOOD + STRESS

Emotional distress around food can perpetuate digestive issues. Things like not eating enough food, eating sporadically, worrying about what you should or shouldn’t eat, cutting out foods, and trying to eat perfectly healthy directly link to digestion. This is where clean eating can actually backfire and cause more digestive issues. I wrote about my own experience a while back when I tried cutting out gluten and dairy to treat my keratosis pilaris. While it may have helped my keratosis pilaris, I also experienced a lot of digestive issues, which I attribute to the stress of cutting out foods from my diet. I can’t say this will be everyone’s experience, but it was an eye-opening experience for me to how the stress of eliminating a food can impact digestion.

Maybe for you it’s not eating or food, but there’s something else that’s causing stress and digestive issues. Whatever is making you feel stressed, I want to leave you with some practical tips on how to manage stress, and in turn help with digestion and overall health. These are all things that I have implemented for myself and many of my 1:1 clients have as well.


TOP TIPS FOR MANAGING STRESS

  1. Prioritize sleep: Getting enough sleep and quality sleep makes all the difference. Everyone has different needs, but the standard recommendation is 7-8 hours a night. Listen to your body to find out what works best for you.

  2. Nourish your body with a variety of food at regular intervals throughout the day: If you aren’t already, start with at least 3 solid meals a day. If you don’t have regular hunger cues, make sure to get 3 meals and about 3 snacks a day at regular intervals.

  3. Re-evaluate exercise: Exercise is really good and can help manage stress, but sometimes exercise can be more stress-inducing than helpful. If you feel obligated to exercise or exhausted after a workout, it’s time to re-evaluate. Start with a walk or some gentle yoga.

  4. Surround yourself with people who love you: Social support makes all the difference!

  5. Process emotions: Pent up emotions can build up inside and manifest physically. Whether it’s journaling, talking with a therapist or coach, find a way to process what you are going through.

  6. Practice gratitude: If you constantly feel like you are not enough, you don’t have enough, or you aren’t doing enough, can build stress in the body. Start every day thinking and believing that you are enough as you are and that what you have is good enough.

  7. Set boundaries: Boundaries are key to not leeching precious energy. This could be around technology, work, or even activities. Focus on what you need to do and say no to things that aren’t necessary.

  8. Practice mindfulness: This could be as simple as taking 3 deep breaths throughout the day. If meal times are stressful, take a minute to breath deep and imagine a positive experience with this meal.

  9. Drink water: Sounds basic, but there have been so many times when hydration has been the key to alleviating a symptom.

  10. Give yourself space: Time away from technology, your to-do list, or other demands can be healing for the soul. Maybe it’s the first 10 minutes of your day where you sit on the couch enjoying the quiet and your coffee.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Stress is real and very complex. Digestive issues are real and complex as well. As hard as it may be, try not to stress about reducing stress or solving digestive issues. If you’re struggling with GI issues, meet with a health care provider to rule out anything serious. I provide this information here to give a first response to deal with stress and digestive issues; to give you another option than cutting out a certain food. You don’t need to do everything all at once, just one step at a time. Over time the small changes will help you live a happier and healthier life.

If you would like support reducing stress and making peace with food, schedule a free Breakthrough Call with me!

Additional Resources/Blog Posts:

https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/stress-and-the-sensitive-gut

https://www.victoriamyers.net/blog/is-clean-eating-causing-your-digestive-issues

https://www.victoriamyers.net/blog/nwp-episode-100?rq=digestion

#digestion #stress

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