The link between stress and our digestive system is quite an interesting one. I’m sure everyone can attest to an upset stomach before a big exam, nerve-wracking interview or important appointment. When we are dealing with acute stressors like these ones, our digestive system is on overdrive and things tend to go right through us. But long term stress has quite the opposite effect on our digestion.
When we are stressed out, our body's digestion is turned off. During the "flight or fight'' stress response, our body is simply focusing on surviving. All biological processes that aren't needed in that moment to deal with whatever stressor we are facing are considered non-essential and are shut down. Our digestive system is on that list of non-essential biological processes.
When digestion has been turned off, the blood gets pulled away from that area of our body, peristalsis (the rhythmic motion in our gut that helps to pass food through our digestive tract) is limited and the digestive enzymes needed to break down our food are not being released. All of these factors combined lead to a sluggish digestive system where food is not broken down or moved through the digestive tract properly. This can not only lead to digestive symptoms like constipation, bloating, gas and indigestion, but also nutrient deficiencies since we are no longer breaking down our food and absorbing the nutrients it has to offer. This is why nutrient deficiencies are such a challenge when we are stressed out. We can be eating the healthiest diet possible but our body may not be absorbing the needed nutrients.
The other way stress can impact our gut health is through our gut microbiome. Your gut microbiome is a collection of trillions of teeny, tiny microbes that have made a home in your gastrointestinal tract. When we think of microbes, like bacteria, parasites and viruses, we think of invasive buggers that are out to sabotage our health. But this can’t be farther from the truth when it comes to the microbes in our gut. These microbes are essential for our survival as we rely on them to support a variety of biological processes including digesting your food, controlling your metabolism, managing your mood and triggering your immune response. Stress can impact the balance of our microbiome, killing off the “good” bugs and encouraging your “bad” bugs to thrive. This has an immense impact on the diversity of your microbiome, which is a key indicator of our overall gut health and how well our digestive system can function.
Lucky, we can do a lot to support our digestive system to help get our symptoms under control. The first thing we need to do is speed up our sluggish digestion, by supporting our natural processes that break down our food. You can do this by:
Adding in apple cider vinegar. Drinking 1-2 teaspoons of fermented unfiltered raw apple cider vinegar (ACV) in a cup of water in the morning or before meals will increase the acidity of your stomach acid and help you digest the food you are about to consume. It is important to dilute in water as the acidity can be harmful to your tooth enamel. Alternatively, you can take apple cider vinegar capsules to protect your teeth.
Sipping on lemon water. Similar to ACV, drinking lemon in water in the morning or before meals will help to increase your stomach acid, supporting the process of breaking down your food.
Enhancing with digestive enzymes. Enzymes work to chemically break down the food we eat. These proteins can speed up the breakdown and turn the food you eat into usable nutrients. We make them naturally, but a little extra support through supplements doesn’t hurt. It is important to aim for one that includes amylase, protease and lipase, which is what is needed to break down carbohydrates, protein and fats respectively.
Taking time to chew.. Chewing your food more thoroughly will assist with breaking your food down more before it even gets to your stomach. This means less work for your stomach and intestines.
To work on balancing your microbiome, the key is introducing the appropriate good bugs into your gut and also nourishing the good bugs with the appropriate food. You can do that by:
Feasting on fermented foods. Adding fermented foods, which naturally contain live microbes, to your diet help to re-introduce a variety of microbes into your intestinal tract and create an environment that promotes a healthy balance of gut microbes. Some common fermented foods include kimchi (my personal favourite), sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir and yogurt.
Adding in probiotics. Probiotics are a great way of introducing good bugs into your intestinal tract to return balance to your microbiome. Probiotics have all the same health promoting benefits as fermented foods, with the added bonus of knowing exactly what microbes you are getting in and in what amounts. The key is diversity, the more bugs, both in quantity and types, the better.
Fueling using prebiotic foods. Once we introduce the new bugs into our gut, it is important to feed them properly to keep them happy and healthy. Prebiotic foods have specific types of non-digestible dietary fiber that are extremely supportive of our digestive health and nourish the good bacteria in your gut. Some foods with this special fibres include leeks, onions, garlic, artichokes, asparagus, apples, bananas, oats and barley.
Another thing to consider is our ability to turn off our stress response, therefore switching off our “fight or flight” for our “rest and digest”. There are quick practices we can do before meals to switch modes, so that the body is in a better state to digest your food and absorb the necessary nutrients. Some techniques to help switch off our stress state include deep breathing, gratitude, visualization of serene situations, laughing and singing. Take a few moments before each meal to stop, slow down and relax, your digestion will thank you for it.
I know there are a lot of suggestions, but when it comes to gut health, it is worth the effort. Since our gut health can influence so many other systems in our body, you might be surprised when some of your other symptoms like fatigue, brain fog, skin issues and mood issues are resolved in the process.
Want to learn more?
Check out this blog on resolving your stress headaches.
Check out this blog on how our gut health impacts our overall health.
Check out this blog on how to improve sluggish digestion.
Check out this blog on how to de-stress before eating to improve digestion.
Check out this blog on how to balance your microbiome.