10 Ways To Protect Your Digestion When Under Stress
As if our lives are not stressful enough, we now find ourselves amid a global pandemic. As our stress levels rise this only makes any digestive issues we already much worse.
In this article, I want to explain exactly how stress affects our digestion and to share ten things you can do now to help manage your stress which will, in turn, have a positive effect on your digestion your immune system and your mental health.
When we are under stress many functions of the body change negatively, for example;
Your Breathing Changes:
You hold your breath. You no longer breathe in a regular pattern. Your breathing becomes quick and shallow. You take in less oxygen which interferes with metabolism and leads to fatigue.
You eat faster:
As your mind races and you think about things other than eating. You don’t chew your food as well as you should, and you swallow large pieces of food which are harder for your digestive system to break down. This also means your food isn’t exposed to as much saliva which contains an enzyme that breaks down starches.
Cortisol is released:
Cortisol is one of the stress hormones which helps us get out of dangerous and stressful situations. Under chronic stress, it is released continually. It puts immune cells on red alert.
Inflammation develops as a natural immune response as your body prepares to fight off the stressor. If you already have inflammation in any part of the digestive system this may flare or get worse.
Your microbiome is damaged:
Stress can cause intestinal permeability and damage to the small intestine. It can destroy good bacteria leading to dysbiosis (imbalance of good and bad bacteria) causing gastric distress.
Digestion shuts down:
Blood is diverted to areas deemed to need it most when you’re in danger such as your limbs and brain. This way you can escape the (real or perceived) impending doom. Digestion takes a back seat.
Nutrients are not absorbed:
With the digestive system not functioning optimally and fewer digestive enzymes being produced, valuable nutrients from your food go straight through you and are of no use.
Nutrient deficiencies develop:
Not only are fewer nutrients being absorbed, but the ones you do have are excreted much faster through your urine. The most common deficiencies due to stress are B vitamins, vitamin C and minerals.
HOW TO PROTECT YOUR DIGESTION
1. STOP & BREATHE BEFORE YOU EAT
This is so important. Your body will not digest food when it is in a stressed state so it’s important to do some breathing exercises before you eat if you’re feeling stressed. Simply take 10 deep breaths. Slowly breathe in through your nose filling your belly and not just your chest, hold it for a few seconds and then slowly breathe out through your mouth, messages are sent to the brain and to your hormones to stand down and relax.
2. JUST EAT
Mealtimes should be exclusively for eating. It’s no good lowering your stress levels by deep breathing before you eat only to watch the latest coronavirus updates on TV or social media while you’re eating. That will ramp up your stress hormones once again and switch off your digestion. Try to focus on your food, the taste and the aroma and enjoy it. If you are with family use the time to chat and catch up with each other. Try eating in the garden, on a balcony, while looking out of a window or in another relaxing environment.
3. EAT WELL
During times of stress, we are drawn towards food which is high in sugar because it makes us feel better. However excess refined sugar can trigger inflammation and, in some people, can even cause intestinal permeability. Rather than having lots of processed food and drinks try to include whole foods or food in its natural state such as fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, beans, pulses and healthy fats such as olive oil. Now is the time to feed your body as many nutrients as possible that it can use to produce energy and fight off any type of disease it may face. Healthy sweeteners you may want to try in moderation include honey, maple syrup, molasses and coconut sugar. If you have any type of food intolerance, make sure you avoid it. Eating something your body doesn’t like will put it under even more stress.
At times like this, you may need to take some form of supplement to support your digestive process. Depending on your specific issues you may need extra digestive enzymes or hydrochloric acid to help break food down. A prokinetic such as Iberogast can help keep your digestive system moving. Including some probiotic food or capsules to keep your microbiome balanced may also be helpful.
5. AVOID WATCHING THE NEWS CONSTANTLY.
Tune in to the main news each day for an update but then concentrate on other things, watch a fun movie or read a good book.
6. GET ENOUGH SLEEP.
Lack of sleep will make everything worse including your digestion. Start to wind down an hour before bed and do something relaxing like reading or a hot bath with essential oils.
7. KEEP IN CONTACT WITH OTHERS.
Depending on where you are you may be on lockdown unable to go out or meet up with friends. Make sure to stay connected with your friends and family by phone, skype or email and try to encourage one another. Keep the conversations positive.
8. BE GRATEFUL.
Whatever your situation you are still alive while others have sadly died of this virus. Start a gratitude journal to make a note of the good things, people and experiences in your life to help you focus on the positives.
9. HELP OTHERS.
Nothing takes your mind off your problems more than helping others. We are all in this together. Is there someone you know or in your neighbourhood that you can help out? Can you cook them a meal and leave it on their doorstep or get some groceries for them? Would someone who lives alone like a phone call, text or email? Is there a local charity you can support in some way? Doing things for other people is a great way to distract us from our problems while helping to reduce the stress of others.
10. KEEP MOVING.
If you are stuck at home for long periods remember to get up and move around. If possible, go for a short walk – always remembering to keep a distance away from anyone you may meet. If you can’t go out do some gardening, take up Pilates, rebounding, stretching or another form of gentle exercise. Gentle movement aids digestion and can lower inflammation.
As I write this article under lockdown in the UK, we have no idea how long this devastating pandemic will last or how it will end. We need to act now to protect our digestive health to stop our symptoms from getting worse. After all, our digestive symptoms won’t disappear just because Covid-19 has turned up, we still have to live with them. Getting into a routine which includes the stress reduction techniques mentioned above can go a long way towards keeping digestive symptoms under control.