Many people come to me with digestive issues, or questions about their digestion during stress and why it changes. Or maybe they develop intolerances to things they ate just fine before. Often I see these digestion problems are stress related or at the least made worse by stress. But then, most people tell me they aren’t stressed. I say their bodies are telling me otherwise, especially their digestion during stress!
Maybe they’re burping or farting more than usual. Food might be repeating for hours after they eat. Perhaps they are getting indigestion or bloating after meals. Many people notice a change in how often they go to the toilet. Or how it feels when they’re going to the toilet. Having to know where the toilets are wherever you’re going is often a big enough hint that something needs to change.
There’s many signs and symptoms from a body that’s stuck in the stress response (fight, flight or freeze) for a long time. But often it’s the messages from their digestive system that gets people to take action. Lets take a look at what happens to your digestion during stress.
BUT WHAT IS STRESS?
Often times it’s because they’ve gotten so used to operating at this high level of stress that it’s their new normal and they think everyone else is doing similar…so they don’t really think it’s that exceptional. Or why would I be stressed? So and so is doing the same and she seems ok. Really, we all are like ducks – on top of the water we look calm and like we are coping just fine. Under the water, our feet are running like mad, working over time.
Stress is a natural human response to pressure when faced with challenging situations. Serious disease, work deadlines, or misfortune are some reasons, but any physical or emotional disturbance can trigger it. Being very busy, a high workload, parenting, driving in traffic, being hot or cold, worrying, high/low blood glucose levels, watching news or violent shows are some examples.
FIGHT, FLIGHT OR FLEE MODE
Our body responds to stress by increasing hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to raise heart rate, blood glucose levels, and prepare the body to fight, flee or freeze. It does this in conjunction with our nervous system which switches from ‘parasympathetic’ (rest and digest mode) dominant to ‘sympathetic’ (fight, flight or flee mode).
Blood, energy and oxygen moves away from our internal organs and are prioritised to the brain, heart and muscles. The focus isn’t on digesting our food anymore, but on making sure our muscles and brain have what they need to help us survive. Digestion slows, and focuses on storing fat for energy. (Yes, this is why you often put on weight during long term stress.)
This stress response, and fight, flight or flee mode, is designed to be a mild, short-lived, and unnoticed response. It provides the changes needed to handle an emotional crisis, perform strenuous tasks, or fight infection. However, this is at the cost of nutrient and nourishment.
However, in modern Mum life, exposure to stressful situations is chronic, intense, and often exceeds our capacity to deal with it. Then it effects our enjoyment of life, becomes harmful to the body, and increases our risk of chronic diseases (EG hypertension, allergies, IBS, and menstrual irregularities). Hormones become imbalanced, there’s long-term inflammation and cell damage, and our nervous system stays in ‘fight or flight’ mode (increasing feelings of anxiety, irritability and overwhelm).
We have an idea of what stress is, but did you know there’s a thing called a ‘Stress Scale’, developed originally to predict the risk of serious disease due to stress. Life-changing events are rated according to their potential to cause disease. Here’s some that may surprise you:
- 🏣End of school
- 👩👩👦👦Change in number of family get-togethers
- 🥂Change in eating habits
your digestion during stress
The infographic below gives a simple explanation of how stress changes our digestive system and brings symptoms like burping, farting, bloating, cramps, gurgling, reflux or indigestion.
4 TIPS to SUPPORT DIGESTION
So what can you do? Naturopathy sees people as a whole. Sometimes this confuses people when they come for help with a particular set of symptoms, like digestive ones, and I start talking about anxiety, mood or setting boundaries. But it’s all important and helps resolve the messages for help (symptoms) that your body is giving us. Here’s 4 simple naturopathic interventions that you can use to support your digestion during stressful times.
1. Sour, tart and bitter tastes
A traditional digestive remedy is the juice of half a lemon in about 100mL of warm water. This helps wake up the digestive system, stomach, intestines and the liver. Acid and enzyme production is stimulated by it’s sour and ever so slightly bitter taste.
If you suck on a lemon you can feel the juices start flowing in your mouth…and it’s doing the same thing in your stomach and intestines! Lemon juice is also acidic so it helps a little with acidifying the stomach. We need the stomach acid to help start the process of breaking apart proteins and continue the digestion of carbohydrates.
If you don’t have lemons (it isn’t lemon season at the moment in Melbourne, so they’re quite expensive in the shops!) you have a few options:
- Enjoy an astringent, sour or bitter tea. My suggestions are from my GLOW series – Golden Glow (bitter but tasty mix of turmeric, spicy ginger, lemongrass, lemon peel and others), Rosey Glow (tangy, slightly sour and astringent blend of rosehips, hibiscus, lemon peel and nettle), or Earthy Glow (bitter, rich coffee alternative of roasted roost of dandelion, burdock, chicory and cacao nibs). You can find the teas in my website shop or in clinic in Sassafras.
- You may use 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar (ACV) instead. But please, protect the enamel of your teeth when drinking ACV, and use a straw. Rinse your teeth with a little plain water afterwards too.
- Home made Kombucha is a probiotic drink that is a little sweet, but also tangy, sour and almost vinegary. The natural acids in the drink can aid in breaking down of food in the stomach. But be careful, don’t drink too much of any liquid with your food, as it dilutes the stomach acid and other digestive secretions. I don’t recommend more than 1/2-1 cup of liquid with food.
2. Milk or water kefir
If you’ve read my blog about what stress does to gut health, you’ll know that increased stress hormones (especially cortisol) and being in fight, flight or flee mode, decreases the protective mucous lining of the intestines. Milk or water-based kefir contain prebiotics and probiotics that help restore this mucous lining. In turn, a healthy mucous lining helps foster healthy microbiome, and healthy intestinal cells that can produce the enzymes needed to break down your food and aid absorption. Remember, you aren’t just what you eat, but what you eat, break down and absorb!
3. Mindful eating
Taking 5 deep breaths when you sit down to eat helps to put your nervous system and body back into rest and digest mode. You can help this further by eating slowly (put your cutlery down in between mouthfuls helps with this). Chewing your food thoroughly (until its almost a paste in your mouth!) means you are less likely to be gulping down large chunks of food. Chewing is one of the first stages of digestion, so if you aren’t doing it well, your stomach and intestines are under even more pressure when they’re already under functioning.
4. reassess the things you are saying yes to
What can you delegate, relegate or delete from your life? Letting go of the activities, tasks or events that don’t serve you can feel really hard (especially at this time of year), but it is so liberating. This is the ultimate act of self-care. Reducing your workload, the amount of rushing around, helps reduce your stress hormone levels and supports nourishment and healthy function of the intestines.
For more ideas and information about how to support and boost your body’s stress resilience, download my free guide here.
Which tip or tips do you think you’ll use over the holiday season to help support your digestion during stress?
If you’ve tried all my tips and still feel like something is not right with your digestion or you’re still feeling overwhelmed, cranky or tired, then you may find a personalised Wellness Plan will help you understand what’s the root cause of your symptoms and importantly, what you can do to help support your body to health again. I love supporting Mums to stop feeling anxious, irritated and tired and start feeling more like they did before they had kids, using practical, easy-to-follow advice about food, lifestyle, movement and herbal medicine. If you’d like to start your health journey and have a personalised Wellness Plan developed for you, please use the online calendar to book a free (no obligation) discovery call or an Initial Consult.