Have you noticed that when you’re feeling anxious, scared or stressed, the first thing impacted is your stomach?
At the first sign of distress, your stomach rebels – you might feel a knot in your stomach, experience changes in your bowel or feel like you’re unable to keep food down.
You may even tell yourself you have a “weak” stomach because every outward change impacts your insides negatively.
Most of us know that stress can impact our digestive system, but we don’t always know why we struggle or how we can create the subtle shifts that help us reverse the impacts of stress on our gastrointestinal system.
Over the last months where uncertainty and chaos have become part of the fabric of our daily life, I’ve seen a marked increase of gastrointestinal complaints from clients – some have even become severe over this time with little relief.
And the worst part is that traditional medicine isn’t always equipped to handle these changes because current treatment simply focuses on minimizing symptoms and not addressing the root cause. If you’ve gone to the doctor for your issues, chances are you’ve been put on medication to ease your pain or you’ve been told there isn’t much you can do.
That can be a hard pill to swallow.
By the time most of my clients come to me they feel frustrated and even more stressed because they’re really not sure what to do.
If that’s you, I wanted this article to help you better understand why you’re experiencing greater gastrointestinal problems and offer you a 3 pronged approach to finding relief – including nutrition, movement and emotional self-care!
How Does Stress Impact Your Gastrointestinal System.
It may surprise you to know that your brain and gut are connected and in constant communication. The gut is actually controlled in part by your central nervous system and your spinal cord and in fact, contains more neurons than the entire spinal cord according to research published in the book Neuroscience.
The gut is lined by a network of neurons that sense when food has entered your gut. The neurons lining your digestive tract alert muscles cells to initiate intestinal contractions to propel food down the system and then break it down into nutrients and waste.
This system – which is also called the enteric nervous system – also sends neurotransmitters such as serotonin to interact with the nervous system and can impact how you digest food during stressful times. What this really means is that when you become stressed enough to trigger an emotional response such as fight-or-flight, digestion slows and the body diverts attention away from digestion to handle any perceived threat.
What then results is that your body might feel the consequences of this interrupted digestion process – including abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation or other such disruptions.
Over time and continued stress, your gastrointestinal issues might become more severe and cause conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) or Gastrointestinal Reflux.
The cycle may even get exacerbated by the fact that these chronic GI issues then inflame your stress and anxiety – generating even more internal issues for the body.
Stress may even cause physiological changes and heighten things like your blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol and can tax the body in ways that leave it working overtime (instead of being in its natural healing state) – all in all creating a pattern that leads to a negative impact.
So – given all this information – how do you stop GI problems from turning into something worse?
Improve Awareness About Your Contribution
One of the biggest problems during stressful times is that we might be unintentionally making things worse by the methods we use to reduce stress.
During stressful times all of our normal coping mechanisms seem to go out the window – we give up exercise, start to eat poorly and might not even get enough sleep to allow the body to repair itself properly.
In fact, over the last few months, more of you have reported that COVID19 (and the news surrounding it) have made you eat more than usual. You’ve eaten different kinds of foods and perhaps even turned to alcohol or tobacco to lessen your stress.
The problem is that even though you might feel some temporary stress relief, you actually stress out your body and set the stage for a situation where your body starts to experience increased heartburn, acid reflux, and in rare cases spasms of the esophagus. It’s likely that you’ll also experience bloating and stomach upset that you ordinarily don’t experience.
You also impact the gut microbiome of your stomach by eating this way and can compromise your immune system – which leads to chronic GI symptoms.
So, one of the first things I share with clients is that during stressful times, you have to double down on your healthy behaviors and eliminate those that might be contributing to both your emotional and psychological stress!
And the first step is really becoming aware of how you might be contributing to your situation.
If you’ve been drinking wine or rewarding yourself with ice cream every night, chances are that your body isn’t being primed for health. Notice how your behaviors, food choices, activity (or lack of activity) is contributing to your overall symptoms.
It may not be just one thing, but an overall pattern of disregard for your health. If that’s the case, you don’t need to beat yourself up, but simply decide that you can reverse course.
Start today by keeping a journal of all the behaviors and habits you’ve adopted since this pandemic broke and see if you can see patterns that could be contributing.
Chances are you’ll be able to identify a few – and that’s the first thing you can start to change!
Choose Stress-Busting Foods and Get Moving
A study published in the May 2017 journal Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews found that cortisol, a hormone released by the adrenal glands during increased periods of stress, increases your appetite. Which means that you might feel hungrier.
It’s important to keep mindless eating in check during periods of high stress and also make sure that you think wisely about what you eat.
Stress not only impacts your appetite, but it impacts food choices too. Think about it, when you’re stressed do you crave carrots or french fries?
Studies have shown that during times of stress people tend to crave foods higher in fat or sugar, or both – which unfortunately don’t do anything to help your stress (or your self-esteem).
So, instead of reaching for a box of cookies, I recommend you look for foods shown to reduce overall stress and anxiety. Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids contain natural mood boosters. So foods like salmon and avocados are great foods to eat during this time.
You might also look for foods rich in magnesium – such as almonds – to help you manage cortisol and feel happier.
Herbal teas and foods rich in antioxidants such as dark chocolate are good to reach for when you want comfort while citrus fruits are great to help you boost Vitamin C and lower blood pressure.
Probiotics that are typically found in foods like yogurt can also help you reduce stress and balance out your gut microbiome- which is great if you’re feeling bloated and stomach upset.
And of course – you need to move. Now, I don’t really prescribe what kind of movement you should do, but I like to suggest that anything that combines both cardio and strength training is beneficial – not just for stress, but also for your overall health!
Taking little steps to reduce stress by eating well, getting sleep and moving your body can all help you reduce your need to rely on medication or have to visit the doctor.
And . . . if symptoms persist, you can even consider talking to us about creating a personalized meal plan to support your healing. The key though – is to start moving your body in the right direction!
If you want to read more about gut health, check out other blog articles.
In good health,
P.S. If you want to learn how to adopt our three prong healthy living lifestyle, check out our new program called The New Normal. The New Normal is a 7-week online and virtual health coaching program to show you how to balance nutrition, movement and lifestyle for healthy living. Check it out today.