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Stress isn’t just a mental experience—it can impact the entire body, including digestion. Stress can be short-term or chronic. The times we live in are challenging and many have found that they’re dealing with additional stress. While there isn’t always an easy or quick fix for stress, there are some things that you can do to support digestion and how your body processes stressful experiences.
How Stress Hormones Affect Your Digestion
Your brain is closely connected with your gut. In fact, the gut is sometimes referred to as the body’s second brain. Not only does a large part of the immune system live there, but so does something known as the enteric nervous system. When you feel stressed or overwhelmed, it can cause feelings of butterflies in your stomach or can even upset your intestines. This isn’t your imagination—it’s a result of how closely connected your gut is to your brain and your emotions.
When you’re stressed, every part of your digestive system can be impacted. This is because your gastrointestinal tract is lined with millions of nerve cells. They can affect digestion in many ways, such as how enzymes break down food in your stomach and small intestine and how quickly foods are moved through the digestive tract.
The primary stress hormone cortisol is what revs your body up when faced with a stressful situation. It’s responsible for the so-called “fight or flight” response. But when you live in a constant state of stress, your cortisol levels can become dysregulated. This specifically changes how your gastrointestinal system works and can lead to esophageal spasms, indigestion, acid reflux, nausea, constipation, and/or diarrhea.
The opposite of fight or flight is “rest and digest.” You need to be in a state of calm for your body to properly digest and absorb nutrients.
How to Lower Stress Levels
How can you manage your stress levels? It can be difficult to simply turn off the stress switch. Making small lifestyle changes can help your body cope better with the effects of stress, which could lead to better digestion.
The best ways to lower stress levels and allow your body to digest food in an optimal way are:
- Move your body. When you exercise, it does many physiological things, but improving blood flow and gut motility are two important ones. These affect digestion by helping your body efficiently move foods through the digestive system while also being able to absorb the nutrients from them. You don’t have to adopt an intense workout routine either. Just consider going for a daily walk, practicing some yoga, or engaging in playful activities that allow you to get more active. (Read our Journal interview with Primal Play expert Darryl Edwards to learn more.)
- Eat more omega-3 fats. Research shows that omega-3 fats can better help your body cope with stress by supporting a healthy mood. Most people don’t get enough omega-3 fats to promote healthy inflammation levels, so choosing to include more wild-caught seafood in your diet is a step toward supporting healthy digestion and lowering both stress and inflammation.
- Spend time meditating. Research also finds that meditation can help reduce stress, which can in turn support better digestion.
- Spend time in natural morning light. Morning sunlight exposure can help to regulate cortisol levels. This can lead to better sleep at night, which can support the body’s overall stress response. You only need 5 to 30 minutes of morning sunlight to create positive effects in the brain, but it does need to be as early in the morning as possible, and consistently for several days to promote noticeable effects.
Today’s Simple Step
Even if you have to do it through a window, getting just a few minutes of morning sunlight can help to regulate cortisol. Optimally, you’d be outside in fresh air while doing it, but understandably in some parts of the world, weather conditions may prevent this some days.
This Salmon Pate is a wonderful way to get omega-3 fats into your diet, while also providing a filling snack or simple meal.