You may be wondering what stress has to do with digestion. Or you may already know. You’ve likely felt butterflies in your stomach before a big event—a performance, your wedding, or even a difficult conversation with your partner or boss. In those moments, you’re likely not thinking about French fries.
Yet in my practice I often see clients who are suffering from chronic stressors. It could be a difficult job that’s been taking a toll for months. It might be systemic pain. Or it may just be the challenges of everyday modern living—kids, finances, and getting a good meal on the table at the end of a busy day. Let’s face it: Life can be stressful.
So what exactly does that mean for the passage of your porridge? Quite a lot, actually.
In a healthy internal environment, your food is broken down into components that are absorbed into the bloodstream and transported to the cells where they are needed. Proteins are disassembled into amino acids, carbohydrates to glucose, and fats to free fatty acids.
This process of transforming complex molecules into simpler ones is dependent on the presence and action of enzymes. And the process of transporting those simple molecules to the cells is dependent on the production and release of the hormone insulin.
I won’t geek out too much on enzymes and hormones here, but I will tell you that relaxation is critical for the proper functioning of the part of your nervous system that allows for the release of insulin.
When you are stressed, insulin secretion wanes. Your food does not get where it needs to go. The digestive process is constrained. Simple food molecules, like glucose, are left to freely wander the blood stream without being delivered to the cells. This means higher blood sugar levels and less fuel or sustaining energy.
Meanwhile, your stress hormones—cortisol and adrenaline—are amping up to take the blood supply that they need for you to fight or flee. They’re taking that blood supply from your digestive system!
Not surprisingly, several doctors and researchers have found stress to be the major reason for digestive disturbances from heartburn to gas to irritable bowel syndrome. But don’t stress out! You’re going to be OK. And I am too. Even though I’ve had (and have!) my fair share of stressors, and they’re likely to keep coming.
So what’s one of my clients who experiences chronic pain due to ovarian cysts supposed to do? How about the client who has seen at least five medical specialists, none of whom can diagnose his random yet incessant gastrointestinal discomfort? What about the parents whose child falls into fits of inconsolable anguish yet won’t eat anything besides dry Cheerios? And what about a hardworking, overachieving single mom like me?
I think you know the answer. It’s the same for all of us: Relax.
Easier said than done, I know. Yet there’s a reason why the counterpart to fight-or-flight is called rest-and-digest. In fact, Dr. Herbert Benson has defined the Relaxation Response as something you have access to as easily as shifting into that fight-or-flight mode (which many of us can do quite easily). And he has written about it eloquently in his timeless book of the same name.
Though rest-and-digest is stimulated by the part of the nervous system that happens unconsciously, Dr. Benson contends that we may actually have some influence over this. Should we give it a try? Consider joining me by partaking in the simple Eater’s Digest homework below.
Homework: Relaxation for Digestion
• Sit down to eat. (This may sound funny to some of you, but I know there are other standers out there.)
• Take a few deep breaths to relax and calm the body before eating.
• Remember to chew your food well.
• If you are excessively wound up when sitting down to eat (which can sometimes happen because of the environment or even the company), focus your mind on a healing word, phrase, or sound of your choosing before taking a bite.
• Try invoking some attitude of passivity where distressing thoughts at mealtime are acknowledged but not engaged.
These last two pointers are components of the relaxation response and have been used successfully in high-stress medical situations. It may take time to learn this new skill, but if it’ll help my food get where it needs to go, I’m in!
Note: There is, of course, the Catch 22 of this whole relationship between stress and digestion: the one where when you feel stressed, don’t feel those butterflies at all, and all you can think about are those French fries! But I’ll leave that connection for another article.
With a career born of a personal family health crisis and the loss of her young husband, functional nutritionist Andrea Nakayama has taken the idea of food as personalized medicine beyond a clinical practice. She guides thousands of international clients on the journey of taking ownership over their own health through her online programs at ReplenishPDX.com and HolisticNutritionLab.com. firstname.lastname@example.org.