STRESS AND DIGESTION
STRESS AND DIGESTION
Throughout people’s quest for the ideal diet and ultimate wellness, many underestimate the importance of the mind when evaluating their health. One of the first things that I ask my clients is to rank their stress level and determine the primary causes of stress in their lives. Following an assessment of how stress impacts their body, we discuss coping skills to address stressors and nutrients to support a healthy stress response. You may think this is more of a psychologists realm of treatment, however, stress plays a significant role on our digestive health, our appetite, our blood sugar balance, and our weight.
The increased stream of communication from technology has drastically increased stress levels through the expectation to never “shut down” or “log out”. Just think, prior to the internet and cell phones how many people worked when on vacation. Now, even if you put in an automated vacation response, chances are there are still clients or bosses that you are responding to and tasks you are accountable for. It all comes down to prioritizing our wellness as a foundational aspect of the way we live our lives. It is important to remember one can take time for themselves without being selfish. I’m sure you have heard your flight attendant say, “put on your oxygen mask prior to helping others”. Prioritizing your wellness starts with taking adequate time to sleep, reflect, practice gratitude, share in community (maybe by shopping your local farmers’ market), and to practice frequent eating habits with quality foods.
Often people are stressed and rushed during meal time, in fact many people regularly skip meals. Consuming food during a time of high stress can cause significant digestive disturbances. When the body feels stressed, whether it’s from daily life occurrences or from serious danger, the body reacts in the same way. The body enters the fight-or-flight mode during stress where the heart rate increases, blood pressure increases and the blood shunts away from the mid body and towards the extremities. The body is concerned about survival rather than digesting food, so therefore digestion functions shut down. This can cause food to sit in the stomach, undigested and result in minimal nutrient absorption!
Rather than food serving to nourish our bodies and fulfill our nutrient needs, cortical steroid stress hormones tell the body to store the food as fat. The amount of hormones released during a stress state is four times the amount at a relaxed state. This excess of cortisol released interferes with blood sugar control making our bodies less sensitive to insulin, causing inflammation, and leading to fat storage. If we are in fight-or-flight our body wants to ensure we will have food available during time of migration or battle. The problem is that stressors of physical survival are no longer common, these days we are typically sedentary during times of high stress; rather that running from a tiger, we are in rush-hour traffic, typing on a lap top, or crunching numbers.
Research has also found that stress can impair the amount of saliva produced, which decreases the enzyme amalyase, further impairing carbohydrate digestion. This is important when selecting foods at times of stress as proteins and fats are better digested. Did you know? The word stressed is “desserts” spelt backwards and due to the blood sugar spikes with high stress, we typically crave sugar! Also, if our mind is improperly digesting life’s experiences, we will have less of the ability to digest food. Many of us are concerned about health and search for ways to prevent disease through diet and supplements, yet we often overlook the importance of an ingredient consumed at each meal, our attitude and state of emotion.
But what can you do? You can’t eliminate most stressors and can’t slow life down. The best approach to coping with stress is developing a proactive method of stress reduction. This can be difficult to do as it seems to be an additional thing to squeeze into our already chaotic lives; however the reality is this: if you don’t find time to prioritize yourself, relax, and reduce your stress levels, you are setting yourself up for increased risk of chronic disease, malnourishment, and weight gain. Take small steps to create a routine that works for you!