Research supports what we all know to be true: we live in a stressed out society. According to the American Psychological Association, 24% of adult Americans categorized their average stress levels as “extreme stress” in 2015. As the pace of life, work, and even leisure speeds up, it is more important than ever to understand how this chronic stress impacts our wellbeing, and in particular digestion and nutrient absorption. Check out this guest post from nutritionist Barb Skinner to learn how exactly stress impacts digestion and for simple, straightforward ideas on how you can impact your health.

Stress impacts our ability to digest food

First, let’s take the bird’s eye view of what happens to the body in a stress state: When we are in a “fight or flight” mode, our bodies are prioritizing those functions that are essential to survival if, for example, we were running away from a charging rhinoceros. Body cells require adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to perform their various functions. In a stress state, more ATP is channeled toward survival functions like bronchial tube constriction and increasing the heart rate, and ATP is channeled away from less urgent tasks like digestion. According to biological priorities, digestion can occur later after we have outrun the rhino and are in a safe place.

The problems arise when we are ALWAYS eating as though our brain feels like we have a rhino chasing us, or a meeting to get to, or while sitting in traffic. The same stress and arousal response within our bodies makes the same physiological changes, regardless of whether the circumstance is actually life threatening. And in today’s world, it’s almost certain that things that cause chronic stress are not life threatening. Our central nervous systems have simply become accustomed to being in a heightened state all the time.

How exactly does stress inhibit digestion?

When we eat while stressed or in that aroused state, we tend to eat in a hurry. Do you know the feeling of anticipating a great meal – seeing the food come out of the oven and smelling the delicious aromas wafting out of the kitchen? It makes your mouth water just thinking about it, right? This is actually an important part of the digestive process that allows our brain to trigger our stomach to start creating stomach acid in anticipation of a meal. As the mouth waters, that extra saliva leads to more salivary amylase: an important enzyme for breaking down carbohydrates into glucose to be converted into cellular energy (ATP). Eating quickly reduces saliva production, and thus reduces the absorption of vitamins, minerals, and glucose from the carbs. Eating quickly also often means less chewing, which adds an inappropriate burden to the stomach.

Eating while stressed (whether fast or slow) also prevents us from creating sufficient hydrochloric acid (HCl), one of the main components in stomach acid. HCl is critical to the digestion of protein because it triggers the stomach to release pepsin, an enzyme that breaks down proteins into amino acids in the stomach. When we eat while stressed, we don’t make enough hydrochloric acid to trigger pepsin secretions and properly digest proteins into usable amino acids.

Deficiencies in amino acids can result in wide ranging health issues from trouble sleeping and low energy, to depression and anxiety, to poor hair and skin health. Additionally, if proteins are not adequately broken down in the stomach, they move into the lower GI tract in larger sizes than the small intestine is equipped to handle. The protein molecules can then pass undigested into the blood stream and cause immune responses such as food sensitivities, allergies, and eventually a chronically hyperactive immune system can result in auto-immune disorders.

Relaxed digestion is absolutely paramount to vibrant health. Here are a few simple ideas to reduce stress around mealtime.

Take 5 deep breaths before every meal, snack, and treat

Relaxing while eating is the number one thing that someone can do to reduce digestive distress. Properly digesting our food allows us to absorb all the nutrients available in our food, and can lead to improved energy, pain reduction, better sleep, and weight loss, to name a few benefits. I know this sounds really basic, but it’s true: when we relax, we breathe. I’m reading the fantastic book The Slow Down Diet by Marc David and he articulates this simple truth so well:

“The entire process of digestion is designed to break food down into microscopic morsels that can be sent to your cells and combusted with oxygen for energy release. Over 95% of all energy generated in the body comes from the simple combination of oxygen plus food. Without oxygen your food is literally useless… That’s why the most commonly used measurement for metabolic rate is oxygen utilization. Metabolism is oxygen. And oxygen comes from breathing.”

Breathing reduces stress and allows us to digest.

We often think of food as fuel in a fire and this is completely accurate! What is the other critical component that fires need to thrive? Oxygen. Breathing reduces stress and allows us to digest our food to use as fuel by ensuring we have ample oxygen for the job.

A squeeze of lemon juice before each meal

Enjoy a glass of hot or cold water with a squeeze of lemon juice (if you prefer you can substitute 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar for the lemon juice) before each meal. Both lemon juice and apple cider vinegar trigger HCl production and help the body to prepare to digest. Lemon juice also contains vitamin C to support the immune system and skin health. Many people do not drink enough water each day, and adding this to your mealtime routine can improve hydration. Coming full circle, adequate hydration supports digestion by promoting blood viscosity that allows digestive hormones, enzymes, and nutrients to move freely through the digestive organs. It’s a win, win.

Plan out your breakfasts for the upcoming week

There is something powerful about having a plan for the morning. It not only ensures we will get the nutrition we need right out of the gates but having a plan for the morning leaves us feeling empowered to choose what we will do and in which state of mind we will do it all day. When we start our day on the right foot, we are not victims of the day but we are intentionally moving through it with responsibility and conviction.

Planned breakfasts can take virtually no time

  • Hard boil a dozen eggs and slice cucumber and carrots on Sunday, then eat 2 eggs and some veggies each morning with zero prep time.
  • Mix up Creamy Cocoa Mixture and eat it with an apple or banana.
  • Make your favorite soup over the weekend and heat some up for breakfast (I love soup for breakfast in the winter!)
  • Slow cooker meats are an unconventional breakfast food, and can quickly be scrambled into eggs, or reheated and tossed over a bed of leafy greens. Try this slow cooker pork (with or without the salsa verde) or this barbacoa beef. There are tons of great slow cooker meat recipes out there and I usually ignore the instructions and put all the ingredients into a crockpot on high for 4 hours or low for 6-8 hours.

    If you liked this article, you may also like some of our other posts about nutrition, stress management and holistic health.