Today, the unrelenting demands of modern life—high-pressure jobs, side hustles, virtual school, living through a pandemic...to name a few—have left many of us dealing with unprecedented amounts of stress. The result? Not only do you feel frazzled and exhausted, but chronic activation of your “fight-or-flight” stress response can have negative effects on digestion, too
So, what happens to digestion when you’re stressed?
When you’re stressed, part of your nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system is activated, triggering the famous fight-or-flight response that—back in the day—was originally meant to help you fight or flee from danger. Unfortunately, your body didn’t get the memo that stressing about work or a relationship doesn’t require the same response as running from a lion.
During this fight-or-flight response, your body releases a variety of hormones like adrenaline, cortisol, norepinephrine, and corticotropin-releasing factor that trigger bodily processes to prepare you for action, while down-regulating processes that are deemed less essential in the current moment—like normal, healthy digestion.
For example, when stress hits, blood gets diverted from the digestive system to your arms and legs so you can swiftly run from danger or fend off an attacker and secretion of stomach acid and enzymes slows way down. This, in turn, can impair your ability to break down food, slow digestion, and mess with motility (i.e. movement of food through the GI tract)—leading to a range of digestive issues.
Here are 7 ways to support digestive health when you're feeling stressed.
Often it’s impossible to cut out all of life’s stressors. The good news: You can take strategic steps to lessen their negative effect on your body (and digestive system). It’s all about doing things that activate your parasympathetic nervous system—the body’s counterpart to the sympathetic fight-or-flight nervous system. When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, your body can prioritize digestion, rest, and recovery. So, if your digestive issues are related to stress, these tips may help:
1. Do a mini meditation before you eat.
Take a few seconds before you eat to get into a calm headspace. Closing your eyes and taking a few deep-belly breaths (slowly in through your nose to fill your belly, then out through your mouth) can have an overall calming effect. It also stimulates the vagus nerve (opens in a new window), which activates the parasympathetic nervous system, priming you for optimal digestion and a balanced mood.
2. Remember to chew your food.
When we’re stressed, we tend to shovel food down in one or two bites. But this doesn’t give your stomach time to pump out the necessary stomach acid or enzymes. Simply chewing each bite adequately can go a long way in supporting optimal digestion. And if you’re truly in a rush, opt for Ka’Chava or a smoothie to make things easier.
3. Focus on nutrient-dense foods.
A diet full of sugary, processed foods can throw your blood sugar out of whack and result in suboptimal nutrient intake. Your best bet: Make sure your diet contains plenty of nutrient-dense plant foods like leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, berries, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes. If you need a little help, Ka’Chava has 85+ plant-based superfoods and nutrients, and an ideal balance of protein, carbs, and healthy fats to help keep blood sugar stable and your digestive system humming.
4. Seek out magnesium-rich foods.
Magnesium is an essential mineral that relaxes your body and is vital to healthy nervous system functioning. By activating receptors for the neurotransmitter GABA, ensuring you get enough magnesium in your diet may help support a calming effect on your mind and body. Unfortunately, studies show that approximately 50% of Americans consume less than the Estimated Average Requirement (EAR) for magnesium, which means you need to take extra care to get this nutrient in your diet[* (opens in a new window)]. Ka’Chava contains magnesium-rich foods such as chia seeds and flax seeds, and it provides 48 to 60% of your daily value for this essential mineral in every serving.
5. Get a daily dose of exercise.
Regular exercise is basically meditation in motion. It’s been shown to boost self-confidence, ease stress, and enhance mood. Whether it’s jogging, rock climbing, or hiking, research shows that physical activity can boost levels of mood-enhancing endorphins and reduce levels of stress hormones (opens in a new window)like cortisol and adrenaline in the body. Plus, exercise boosts blood flow to the digestive tract, which can improve GI motility and help keep you regular.
6. Make meaningful connections.
We get it, life can get overwhelming and social interactions can quickly take a backburner, but it’s important to get a dose of meaningful human interaction whenever you can—even if it’s just a 15-minute phone call to a friend or grabbing a quick catch-up coffee. Interestingly, research shows that spending time doing something enjoyable with people you like can actually stimulate the vagus nerve (opens in a new window) (just like deep breathing, mentioned above), which can help you get out of a fight-or-flight stress state and into a calm parasympathetic-dominant state.
7. Do something that brings you joy.
Oftentimes, stress results from being chronically in our own heads and overwhelmed with all the little details of life. For this reason, it can help to periodically hit the pause button. If you’re the type who can’t sit still long enough to meditate, try instead to set aside time in the day to do something that brings you pure joy—something where time seems to stand still and you’re thoroughly immersed in the moment. This could be anything from rock climbing to baking to knitting to making music. When you’re in this flow state, stress basically melts away.