Healthy digestion is one of the foundations of our wellbeing and one of the areas of our health that is most directly affected by stress. There’s a reason we talk about not being able to “stomach” bad news – in times of stress, we literally shut down the signals to the stomach to digest.
The body diverts energy and blood to the areas that are needed to deal with an acutely dangerous situation, like running from a bear. We need to be able to use our big muscles, see clearly, and think fast, so blood is sent away from the digestive tract to the large muscles, the heart, the lungs, and the brain – not to the stomach and intestines. At the same time, the nervous system sends signals to the digestive track telling it not to waste energy.
This is all great if you’re actually running from a bear. If you run from a bear you either get away from the bear or you get eaten. In either case, the stress is over fairly quickly. For many of my clients, however, the stress of life causes them to respond physiologically as though they are always running from the bear. This chronic stress causes them to rarely use their digestive tract efficiently. Decreased blood flow and neurological signals to the digestive organs leads to poor digestion and a buildup of unhealthy amounts of half-digested foods. This causes fermentation, gas and bloating. It can also lead to constipation or irregular bowel movements, some of which may be loose and urgent.
So, what do we do about it? It’s unlikely that you’re going to remove all the stress from your life. What you can do is change how you respond to stress and help your body shift out of that “fight or flight” mode. Try some simple tips at your meals for the next week and see if your digestion changes.
1. Avoid stress during mealtimes as much as possible. This means: shut off the television, do not eat at your desk, save stressful topics of conversation for another time.
2. Pause before you eat and try this exercise for 5-10 minutes:
a. Close your eyes and feel your feet on the floor.
b. Slow down your breathing, particularly your exhale
c. Don’t take deep breaths, but concentrate on exhaling slowly. If this is difficult, purse your lips slightly and pretend you are exhaling through a straw.
d. Allow your breath to shift from your chest into your abdomen
3. Slow down! Aim to chew each bite at least 20 times. You don’t have to do it perfectly, but the idea is to slow down and experience the food in your mouth. Tastes, smells, textures, and chemical and mechanical signals involved in chewing all help to shift your body into a state that stimulates digestion.
For many of my clients stress is a very real cause of many of their digestive symptoms. This does not mean that their symptoms are “all in the head” or made up. It means that the way they experience challenges in their lives is causing significant changes in the way their bodies function. The above simple steps, along with those that help to reduce stress, will start to shift the body back to a more functional state. At times other therapies like biofeedback, bodywork, homeopathy, and herbs are also useful in addressing the effect of stress on the body and require the assistance of a qualified health care practitioner. You can get started with the tips above on your own today.