Stress and digestion- my top 10 tips
What is stress?
The body perceives stress in the same way- no matter what has got you feeling stressed out. The same reaction happens whether you are feeling stressed about a big meeting at work or your car broke down.
There are two types of stress acute and chronic.
Acute stress (eustress) is an alarm reaction, it’s what may save your life when you need to jump out of the way of an oncoming bus. The body can recover from this stress quickly.
Chronic stress (distress) is constant. It’s the constant niggle at the back of your mind that the bills need paying or that you are unhappy in your job. It’s repeated with no recovery time for the body. This is the type of ‘stress’ that most people suffer from in our fast paced lives and it has an effect on our digestive systems as well as our general health.
When we feel stressed our sympathetic nervous system is switched on. The hypothalamus gland in our brains is what activates this. In turn it tells our adrenal glands to produce adrenaline and noradrenaline (these are the hormones that help you jump out of the way of that oncoming bus). At the same time, another gland in our brains the pituitary gland produces adrenocorticotropic releasing hormone which tells the adrenal glands to produce cortisol.
With all these hormones circulating the bloodstream we feel more alert. Our blood pressure, heart rate and respiratory rate all increase. Glucose production is also increased to give energy to our brain and muscles.
But what does this mean for our digestive system?
As a consequence of stress our appetite will be suppressed, digestion will slow down and may be completely inhibited. Stomach acid production can be increased as well as the motility of our digestive system. You may recognise the following symptoms:
Constipation or diarrhoea (or both)
Heart burn or stomach pain
Bloating and cramping
Cortisol (the stress hormone) and your blood glucose levels have a very close relationship. Low blood sugar levels (hypoglycaemia) can cause cortisol to be released. Therefore, it is advisable to eat regular meals and snacks and stay away from foods which are high in simple carbohydrates. Such as:
· Sugary breakfast cereals and white bread/ pasta
· Chocolate (except small amounts of dark chocolate 70% or more)
· Fruit smoothies/juices (more on this in another blog post)
· Caffeine, alcohol and drugs
To support the adrenal glands we need to ensure good potassium levels in the body and to avoid high sodium levels. The best way to do this is to eat a diet rich in vegetables and fruit as this can produce potassium to sodium levels of 50:1.
Leafy green vegetables are brilliant as they are also high in magnesium which can reduce the activity of HPA axis (hypothalamus, pituitary adrenal axis).
My top 10 tips to help your body cope with stress
1. Eat a well-balanced diet with 3 proper meals per day plus 2 snacks if you need them. A balanced breakfast with protein fat and complex carbohydrates is really important to keep your bloody sugar balanced throughout the day. See my recipe pages for ideas.
2. Limit caffeine intake to one cup per day. Try to swap coffee for green tea as green tea is rich in the happy and calming amino acid L-theanine.
3. Take a broad spectrum probiotic to support your digestive system.
4. Incorporate exercise into your routine. I highly recommend yoga as it is gentle and many studies show its calming effect on the nervous system. Join a local class or try an online at home programme.
5. Being outside in nature has been proven to reduce anxiety levels. Take a long walk!
6. Magnesium salt baths 3 x week and really relax- learn to do nothing!
7. Get a good 7-8 hours of sleep per night. Read a book for 1 hour before bed and switch off all screens.
8. Practice gratitude. Each evening before bed write down the things in your life you are thankful for.
9. Avoid alcohol, smoking and recreational drugs
10. Talking therapies- working with a qualified therapist can help you with coping strategies such as CBT.
Always speak to your healthcare professional before taking any supplements.