Stress is a sneaky s.o.b. It’s easy to spot when it shows up in the form of a headache or tightness in the neck and shoulders, but there are many other subtle, sneakier ways stress can mess with our bodies–including our digestive system.
You might be thinking right, everyone knows stress can cause ulcers – duh. I’m not talking about ulcers though, those are easy to diagnose, identify and treat. I’m talking to problems in the gut that refuse to fit into a neat diagnosis and present themselves in vague, yet persistently annoying ways.
A 2011 article in the Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology identifies a wide array of problems stress can stir up in your insides including Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), the sudden development of food allergies and sensitivities, and changes in the ability to properly digest food, the blood flow to your digestive system and the flora of mibrobiota in your system (your unique ecosystem of good bacteria helpers who keep everything running smoothly).
How does this happen? In a nutshell, the signals your brain sends changes under periods of both short and intense stress and over longer periods of prolonged stress. This change results in an upset in the normal functioning of your digestive system. According to Harvard Medical School, these disorders affect 35-70% of men and women at some point in their life. Both traditional Western and Eastern medicine (like Ayurveda) agree – an unhealthy gut spells trouble.
While you might not develop full-blown disorders, you might notice occasional stomach upset, discomfort, constipation, bloating, etc. when you are stressed. In a system with no nerve endings, any physical presentation of digestive upset should be addressed. Stress can literally put your stomach in knots and cause your colon to contract and decrease your ability to properly breakdown and digest food. This can in turn impact mood, sleep and energy putting you on a miserable metabolic merry-go-round.
So great, one more thing to worry about right? Not necessarily. There are a number of things you can do to make your system more resilient to stress and to even help cushion the impact of longer-term bouts of it. The bonus–most of these habits promote better overall health and even reduce overall stress.
First – ask yourself: Is your butt smiling? Wait. What?
Seriously. Think about it for a sec. When stressed, our bodies tense up, impeding any regular passing of food through your system. When relaxed, the muscles around your digestive system also relax and let things pass through. Next time you’re feeling a little unsettled in the tummy, try telling your butt to relax, smile and let it go.
Priming the digestive system by drinking warm or room temperature water before eating also helps set your stomach up for success. Otherwise, your stomach has to work to get things to an even temperature before it is able to digest anything. Which brings me to my next point–eat nourishing food to start. This doesn’t mean cramming salad down your throat in between meetings – it means taking the time to sit and mindfully chew and eat a meal. That’s it. As Weird Al says “just eat it”. No TV, no computer, just you and your nutrient-dense food. No time for that? Consider smoothies or liquid supplements during times when you need to eat, but also don’t have time. This isn’t an ideal all the time, but definitely better than grabbing a candy bar some other equally nutrient empty snack or completely skipping a meal.
So slow down, breath while mindfully munching high-quality food (but don’t drink – save that for before and after) and eat when you are actually hungry, not to boost your energy. These simple habits should translate into better sleep and increased energy, helping to slow down the sleep-stress-stomach-stamina merry-go-round.
I’m Janice Otremba, a professional speaker, facilitator and coach who specializes in Beating Burnout, Lowering Stress and Powering Up Your Happy! Let’s kick your butt into gear with simple, sound advice for beating burnout and powering up your happy. Book a free 15-minute consultation call with me to get started!
Image from Nutraingredients.com