How stress affects the digestive system
Q: Over the holidays I didn’t experience any digestive issues, yet, after a few weeks back at work, it appears a lot of digestive symptoms are back. Is this just stress? Thanks, Carlene.
A: Firstly, your digestive symptoms could be a result of a number of underlying health issues, so I would certainly encourage you to visit your GP to discuss these concerns. Research certainly suggests there are a number of factors that can affect our ability to digest and utilise the nutrients from food including stress hormones, caffeine and medications.
Stress is particularly important to consider when it comes to digestive function, as too many people spend their days in Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) dominance – a constant state of ‘‘fight or flight’’, with high circulating levels of adrenalin.
This can have a devastating effect on our ability to effectively produce stomach acid and thus can result in reflux, digestive discomfort or lethargy after eating. It has been reported that 15-20 per cent of New Zealand women experience Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) symptoms, and food plays a major role in this, but so does the relentless production of adrenalin.
From your body’s perspective if it thinks you’re preparing to fight/take flight, it diverts blood flow away from what it considers non-vital processes and if your life is in danger, digestion is one of those. All resources go into saving your life from the danger your body perceives you are in, due to the high levels of adrenalin.
I cannot emphasise enough the importance of activating the rest, digest and repair arm of the nervous system – known as the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) – using breath-focused practice or mindfulness. Extending the length of the exhalation activates this arm of the nervous system as you would never breathe this way if your life truly was in danger. It therefore communicates to every cell in your body that you are safe and as a result your digestive processes are prioritised not compromised.
Given there are no teeth beyond our mouth, we need to be really conscious of food inhaling – for example, sitting down at your desk and literally engulfing your lunch, as you complete another task. This double whammy of not being mindful and eating too quickly is unfortunately a very common scenario in workplaces.
For one week really focus on chewing your food, chew each mouthful until the food has been sufficiently broken down. This may vary depending on the individual but 20 times per mouthful is a good start. You may notice that you want to put
another forkful of food into your mouth while you are still chewing the first one. Resist this and wait until you have swallowed your well-chewed food before you put the next mouthful in.
The old adage you are what you eat isn’t quite correct; instead you are what you eat, absorb and assimilate. Simple gut-supporting strategies such as chewing your food properly, taking apple cider vinegar in water before meals and not drinking water with meals may assist your digestive symptoms.
❚ Dr Libby is a nutritional biochemist, best-selling author and speaker. The advice contained in this column is not intended to be a substitute for direct, personalised advice from a health professional. Visit drlibby.com.
Sitting down at your desk while eating lunch is not to be recommended.