Please enable javascript in your browser to view this site!

Stress + digestion

Photo by  Brooke Lark

Photo by Brooke Lark

I have to make a conscious effort to sit and eat without distraction. No phone, no TV, no book, no podcast and definitely not in transit. It all feels highly unproductive, but all of these activities cause the body to digest under stress.

Digestive stress is about 25% what you eat, and 75% who we are being. The way in which we eat can either feed the stress response, or calm the stress response.

Eating under stress is not only commonplace, it’s socially acceptable and often a pre- requisite for managing a job, a family or having a life.

Stress is the opposite of relaxation. When do we feel stressed? Mostly when we are moving too fast. If you’ve been trying to balance your hormones but are not noticing any changes, chances are… you’re moving too fast!

How is stress impacting our bodies? 

When moving through life too fast we inevitably eat fast, which destroys our metabolism and creates digestive upset. It results in meals eaten under a physiologic stress-response, which diminishes our calorie-burning power.

The slower you eat and the more you chew, the faster you metabolise. You can eat the healthiest meal on the planet, but if you eat it in a stressed out, anxious state, your digestion is dramatically diminished. Salivary enzyme content in the mouth is reduced, the breakdown of protein, fat, and carbs in the stomach is impaired, and blood flow to the small intestines is decreases as much as fourfold, which translates into decreased assimilation of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients.

Have you ever had the experience of eating a full meal and still being hungry, like you just can’t get satiated? This is a good sign that the stress response is on and your body isn’t assimilating nutrients.

So, let’s talk about the connection between stress and metabolism.

The autonomic nervous system is responsible for digestive activity. There are two branches: The Para-Sympathetic and the Sympathetic.

The Parasympathetic is also known as the rest and digest response. This is the optimal state for digestion. When the parasympathetic is activated our metabolic power goes up.

The Sympathetic is also known as fight or flight. This is our stress response. When we are stressed out our digestion shuts down. The classic textbook example is that if a lion was chasing you after lunch you wouldn’t be concerned about digesting your sandwich. The sympathetic nervous system would act effectively to shut down digestion, direct blood flow away from the belly and out to your arms and legs for quick moving and up to your brain for quick thinking.

This is a brilliant mechanism in place for our survival. While most of us do not have to confront lions on our lunch hour, we do encounter stress. On a physiological level your body doesn’t differentiate between a lion chasing you and your boss pressuring you or getting tense in a traffic jam. One is life threatening the other is not, but guess what… on a physiological level they are the same. They both trigger the body to shut off digestion and store fat. This decreases our metabolic power.

Cortisol is the hormone that is released when we are stressed out. Studies show that increased cortisol in the system leads to fat accumulation. People who tend to gain weight primarily around the belly, likely experience chronic low-level stress, as excess cortisol production has this strange effect of fattening up the belly. Make sense?

Whether you are trying to lose weight or to regulate your hormone production, if you are in a stressed state most of the time (even low-level stress) you will struggle to get you where you want to go. Your task is to do something of great difficulty: RELAX!

Worrying and stressing about weight loss or your fertility is totally counterproductive.

To boost metabolism and regulate your hormones you must RELAX and stop producing so much cortisol. The #1 way to stop producing so much cortisol is to slow down. Slowing down at meal times is a great place to start:

  1. If you eat breakfast in five minutes, make it 10. If you normally take 10 min, bump it up to 15.
  2. Give yourself at least 30 minutes for lunch and dinner.
  3. Optimise your home and work schedules as best as you can to provide yourself with more time. Commit to providing yourself the gift of more time at each meal.

As best you can, enrol your family, co-workers, and boss in creating more time and relaxation with meals. It will also boost your productivity, it's science ladies. ;-)