How a Functional Nutritionist Can Help You Manage Stress for Better Digestion
Posted by Andrea Nakayama
Understanding the link between stress and digestion
If you’ve ever experienced the sensation of butterflies in your stomach, you’re familiar with the connection between acute stress and short-term digestive sensations. And yet chronic stress can have a profound impact on your overall digestive health. Chronic stressors that affect digestion can take many forms, like systemic pain and inflammation, or the everyday challenges of modern living (kids, finances and getting a good meal on the table at the end of a busy day). Let’s face it: life can be stressful and our digestion can suffer.
The role of enzymes in digestion
In a healthy internal environment, the food you consume undergoes a complex process of breakdown and absorption. It’s broken down into components that are absorbed into the bloodstream and transported to the cells where they are needed. Proteins are disassembled into amino acids; carbohydrates to glucose; and fats to free fatty acids.
This process of transforming complex molecules into simpler ones is dependent on the presence and action of enzymes. And the process of transporting many of those simple molecules to the cells is dependent on the production and release of the hormone insulin.
The impact of stress hormones on digestion
During periods of stress, the body produces elevated levels of stress hormones, namely cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones prioritize the needs of the fight-or-flight response, redirecting blood supply away from the digestive system. Not surprisingly, researchers, holistic health, nutrition, and medical professionals have found stress to be a leading cause of various digestive disturbances, including heartburn, gas, and irritable bowel syndromes.
Relaxation: A key component for proper digestive function
Relaxation is not only critical for the rest-and-digest environment that allows us to break down the food we consume, but it’s also necessary for the release of insulin. When you’re stressed, insulin secretion wanes. Put simply, food does not necessarily get where it needs to go. As a result, simple food molecules, like glucose, may freely circulate in the bloodstream without reaching the cells. This can lead to elevated blood sugar levels and lack of sustained energy.
Empowering solutions for stress-related digestive issues
Even though I’ve experienced my fair share of stressors that are likely to keep coming, I find comfort in knowing that there are effective strategies for managing and alleviating the impact these tolls take on my body. Functional Nutritionists and Functional Nutrition Counselors like those I train in Full Body Systems, offer guidance and support for individuals struggling with similar stress-related digestive disorders. That guidance may start with making the connections between the stress state and the digestive distress.
The rest-and-digest response
Dr. Herbert Benson has defined the Relaxation Response as something we have access to as easily as shifting into that fight-or-flight response. He’s written about it eloquently in his timeless book of the same name. Though rest-and-digest is stimulated by the part of the nervous system that happens unconsciously, Dr. Benson contends that we may actually have some influence over its activation. By incorporating relaxation techniques into our daily lives, we can promote moving into a restorative rest-and-digest state.
Tips for digestion-enhancing relaxation
Here are some practical tips that you can implement to enhance relaxation and support optimal digestion:
- Sit down to eat: For the standers out there, take a moment to sit down and create a calm environment for your meals.
- Deep breathing: Take a few deep breaths to relax and calm the body before eating.
- Mindful chewing: Take your time to thoroughly chew your food.
- Recite a healing mantra: If you are excessively wound up during mealtime, focus your mind on a healing word, phrase, or sound of your choosing before taking a bite. My word of the year is resilience.
- Cultivate passivity: Acknowledge distressing thoughts that may arise during meals, but choose not to engage with them.
These last two pointers are components of the relaxation response and have been used successfully in high-stress medical situations. It may take time to learn this new skill, but if it’ll help my food get where it needs to go, it’s worth the effort.
Working with a knowledgeable Functional Nutritionist, can help you gain the necessary tools to manage stress effectively and improve your digestion. Remember, relaxation plays a vital role in the rest-and-digest response, allowing your food to be properly digested and utilized by your body. Take the first step towards better digestive health by embracing the power of relaxation.
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