If you have ever felt a knot or butterflies in your stomach, you’ve experienced the impact of stress on your digestive system. Dr Brad Leech is a clinical nutritionist and educator interested in complex gastrointestinal disorders. He explains why stress causes this response and how to relieve these symptoms.
“Stress triggers the release of hormones, like cortisol, that can impact your digestion,” Brad says. “Cortisol can cause the muscles in your gut to contract or expand, speeding up or slowing down the movement of food and waste.
“Cortisol is the stress hormone that suppresses non-essential functions when your body perceives you’re in a fight or flight situation. What we need for optimal gut health is to rest and digest.
“Stress can affect the digestive secretions that help you break down food, which means your body may absorb less nutrients,” he says. “People living with chronic stress are more likely to eat more or highly processed foods, which are not as easy to digest. Over time, stress impacts the balance of bacteria in your gut, which causes discomfort and increases your risk of chronic disease.
“If you’re experiencing ongoing digestive symptoms – like stomach pain, heartburn, diarrhoea, constipation, nausea and bloating – please see a health professional,” Brad says. “They will help you identify if your symptoms are related to stress or something more serious.”
If your digestion is impacted by stress, Brad points out the first step is to address the cause of the problem.
“There is no point treating your gut health without addressing your mental health,” Brad says. “With your practitioner, identify what triggers your stress and how to minimise its impact. Consider your whole lifestyle – sleep, diet, exercise, work and relationships. There are many ways, including breathwork, meditation, exercise and self-care, to improve your mental health.”
Brad also reminds his nutrition clients that digestion is a process of many phases.
“People often think digestive health is just about what happens in their stomach, but our bodies start to release digestive enzymes when we smell food,” Brad says. “Saliva is part of the digestive process. Chewing is an important phase that eases digestion.
“Think about what you eat and how you eat. If you’re eating on the run, you don't give your body time to produce the enzymes to break down food. If you can, sit and eat mindfully,” he says. “After eating, stay seated for at least four minutes, enough time for your body to move the food into your stomach.
“Managing your stress will positively impact your digestion and many other aspects of your life.”
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