Did you know…stress impairs digestion?

This piece of information in incredibly important to understand because it means that if you’re under stress (which you probably are if you’ve got chronic daily stresses like email and deadlines and traffic), you’re not digesting your food properly, which means your body is not getting the nutrients it could or should be.

When your body is under stress and your life appears to be at risk, all major systems in your body are compromised – reproduction, immunity, repair, and digestion. The circulation of blood intended for those systems is shunted so that instead, the blood can go to your brain and muscles in order to fight or flee.

When it comes to digestion, this lack of circulation can keep you from properly digesting food which means your body and mind are not getting the necessary vitamins and minerals and fuel they need to do their jobs properly. This can wreak havoc on your digestive system, your intestinal lining, and gut flora, resulting in a plethora of problems from leaky gut and allergies to fatigue, depression and more serious disease. 

What is digestion?

Digestion is the process of breaking food down into usable forms of energy (molecules). Once these foods are broken down (thanks to enzymes and other chemicals), these molecules are absorbed into your blood stream to go to your cells. Then those cells can build things like protein, carbohydrates and fats, the nutrients you need to stay alive.  Bottom line? digestion is kind of important.

Why is digestion impaired during stress?

When you’re under stress, your brain signals the release of various hormones – cortisol, adrenaline, noradrenaline, DHEA, testosterone – and those hormones flood your body.  These hormones are released so that your body can save your behind from whatever ‘threat’ you’re facing. (That threat could be deadlines, traffic, email, conflict, bills, but it could also be dehydration, lack of sleep, too much screen time, to name a few).  Reminder: your perception of that threat plays a huge role in your stress response.

When your life is at risk (or you react like it is), your body naturally shuts down certain processes that it doesn’t deem urgent or necessary in that life threatening moment.  A few main ones are:  reproduction (this is huge energy expense, more for women because of ovulation and pregnancy, but when you’re possibly going to die, you’re not worried about having a baby), immune system response (which affects how well your tissue and muscles and bones might repair themselves), and digestion.

The circulation of blood is shunted to your stomach so that it can go to your brain and muscles in order to fight or flee.  Think about it – if you’re running for your life or about to fight your attacker, the last thing you’re thinking of is “I can’t wait to have those leftovers from that amazing dinner I made last night!” This lack of circulation can wreak havoc on your digestive system, your intestinal lining, your gut flora, resulting in a plethora of problems from leaky gut and allergies to fatigue, depression and much more serious issues.

I have 2 suggestions, one of which seems to be more doable than the other:

  1.  Take 3 long deep breaths before you eat.  This is 30 seconds. You can do it.
  2. When eating, eat. This means do nothing else but eat. This is the most challenging one, it seems, because it means no emailing, no TV, no walking around while scarfing down your lunch, no work while you eat. Even if you only have 10 minutes, just eat without multitasking. This is a huge challenge for many because we are in the habit of DOing, DOing, DOing when we need to get in the habit of just BEing.

Multi-tasking while trying to digest food is like having a huge project to complete, but you keep getting interrupted with little side tasks. This means digestion (your big project) doesn’t get done well or at all. Why? Because:

  • you’re likely not anticipating food which creates digestive enzymes that help digest food,
  • you’re likely not chewing properly which isn’t helping to break foods down into easily digestible components,
  • your team of digestive organs are working overtime trying to make up for what your stomach is now unable to do,
  • sufficient acid is not being produced in your stomach, helping to break down food into digestible components.

Of course, you won’t be able to physically see digestion change in your body as a result of implementing these suggestions, but if you pay attention to your body, I’m quite certain you will feel a difference, even if it just means you feel more relaxed and grateful to have had a few minutes of downtime. Trust me, it will do your body a world of good.