The Link Between Stress And Digestion

Apr 9, 2020

In today’s article, I’m going to be touching on the topic of ‘digestion’. It’s the health challenge that has come up most frequently in my nutrition clinic in 2020, & so if my nutrition clients are anything to go by – it’s very likely that you or someone you know will benefit from me dedicating this article to the gut.

I have three goals for this article; firstly – to remind you that living with an unhappy digestive system isn’t normal & there are many steps you can take to nourish your digestion back to better health. Secondly, my goal is to clearly explain the far-reaching effect stress has on our digestion so that you can be more aware of it, & thirdly – I’ll give you some actionable steps which you can implement right away to leave your digestive system in a much more positive state.

1) – Poor Digestion Is Not Okay. 

A distressed digestive system can include any of the following, from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gastroenteritis, or simply a bloated tummy, cramping, excessive wind, difficulty going to the toilet or the opposite – express toilet visits. Even though they’re common, our body communicates via signs & symptoms & these are all symptoms that we should make some changes to remedy the situation, not put up with it.

A common side-effect of digestive distress is reduced energy, lower confidence, feeling uncomfortable in clothes & self-conscious around others, particularly if you suffer from unexplained wind or the urgency to go to the bathroom. I hope I’ve got your agreement that focusing on the digestion (rather than burying our head in the sand & hoping it’ll go away) is the best way forward if we want to be proactive with our health.

2) – Stress & Digestion.

The first thing to mention & to remind you of is that your body always has your best interests at heart & to do its job efficiently, it has a hierarchy of needs & survival comes first – above digestion. When you have a bloated tummy, or you’re experiencing digestive discomfort, this hierarchy can easily be forgotten.

Stress can be a major contributing factor behind almost all health disorders, including those of our digestive system. When our body is under stress, our body makes the stress hormone adrenaline & our sympathetic nervous system drives the ‘fight or flight’ response. The last thing our body has on its agenda is to digest our previous meal or to recall that it has been a few hours since we last ate a meal & to distractedly focus its attention on food. That would be a very inefficient use of our body’s attention, especially when more imminent dangers could be on the horizon. 

In order to effectively power our flee or flight from danger, our bodies divert our blood flow away from our digestive system towards our arms & legs – so that our muscles have adequate energy supply to fight or flight should they need to. Consequently, when we eat when we’re in a stressed state, the food that arrives into our digestive system doesn’t have the resources to digest it optimally, which leads to symptoms of digestive distress. 

So many people, unknowingly through their food & drink choices, through their lifestyle, their beliefs as well as their thoughts & perceptions, consistently churn out stress hormones. We are designed to dip into stress temporarily & then flee the stress, & spend the majority of our lives in a much more zen existence; the issue arises if we have prolonged or unaddressed stress in our lives.

As well as the hormonal aspect that occurs when we’re under stress, the cells in our digestive tract can become ‘leaky’ when we’re under stress, any by leaky, the distance between one cell and its neighbouring cell becomes larger so that more nutrition and larger food particles can pass into our blood stream so that we have more energy on tap ‘fighting’ or ‘flighting’. 

Normally the control of the digestive tract would be heavily policed by our immune system, but in times of needs, the digestive flood gates can open, and this mechanism can give rise to more food intolerances, and later digestive complains. Again, this mechanism works fine when it’s tapped into sporadically; the issue arises when we use it too frequently, i.e. when we’re going through or have gone through a period of prolonged and un-dealt with stress.

3 – Three Action Steps.

  1. Pinpoint the stress. No amount of dietary change or supplementation can make up for the effects of unaddressed chronic & unrelenting stress. Spend a few moments writing down the sources of what is stressing you & separate it into two columns: what you can control & what you can’t. Start working on the most simple factors on the controllable column first, & work your way through the list, either by yourself or with a good friend who’s solution-focused & supportive of you living a happier life. Be aware of the issues you’ve highlighted as ‘uncontrollable’, but focus your energy on what you can do.
  2. Our perception of pressure & the sense of urgency that we place on our daily life will affect our digestion – explore these two areas. Do you feel rushed day-to-day? Are you constantly feeling like you’re chasing your tail with a never-ending to-do list? Take a moment to pause, reflect on how lucky you are to live where you live, to be able to read, to have the disposable income to be able to spend 4€ on a Roqueta magazine – you are already more fortunate than most. When we address the daily worries & concerns that cloud our brain & drive our body to experience stress, even when we’re not in physical danger, we can choose to save our stress response for the times when we really need it. This change can truly have an incredibly beneficial effect on our gut health. 
  3. See a qualified & experienced practitioner to support you with targeted dietary changes, medicinal herbs &/or medications to resolve any potential gut bacteria/parasite problems. Don’t over-complicate things – start with the most conquerable and far-reaching benefits first – what’s your water intake like? And are you hitting 5 portions of vegetables into your diet daily?

That’s it from Tom and I. I hope this article resonates.

Let us know which tip has stuck with you in the comments below.

Jess and Tom

We’re Jess & Tom! A husband and wife team, sharing workouts & nutrition made simple from our island home in Menorca. Our mission? To help people get and stay in shape, and enjoy the journey along the way. We love to travel, hike & bring together inspiring people.