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Here's Exactly How Stress Impairs Digestion

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 in a state of chronic stress. The result? Not only do you feel frazzled and exhausted, but surprisingly, 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, 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 such as constipation, bloating, indigestion, and diarrhea.

And when you’re chronically frazzled, you’re keeping your body in a low-grade fight-or-flight state for way longer than nature ever intended, which can exacerbate these digestive issues.


7 ways to alleviate stress-induced digestive issues. 

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, 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 alleviating digestive issues, like bloating, caused by sub-optimal digestion. And if you’re truly in a rush, opt for Ka’Chava or a smoothie to take some of the burden off your GI tract.

3. Focus on nutrient-dense foods.

A diet full of sugary, processed foods can throw your blood sugar out of whack and prime you for nutrient deficiencies, both of which can exacerbate stress and digestive issues. 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 70+ plant-based superfoods and nutrients, and an ideal balance of protein, carbs, and healthy fats to keep blood sugar stable. 


4. Seek out magnesium-rich foods.

Being low in magnesium (which an estimated 75% of people are) can exacerbate the effects of stress and anxiety, but increasing magnesium intake has been shown to help people cope. Bonus: Prioritizing magnesium in your diet can help alleviate constipation, too. One serving of Ka’Chava contains 60% of your daily value for magnesium. 


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 anxiety, and enhance mood. Whether it’s jogging, rock climbing, or hiking, research has shown that it can boost levels of mood-enhancing endorphins and reduce levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline in the body. Plus, exercise boosts blood flow to the digestive tract, which can improve GI motility and help prevent or alleviate constipation.


6. Make meaningful connections.

We get it, it’s hard to see friends and family in a pandemic, but it’s important to get a dose of meaningful human interaction whenever you can—even if it’s via Zoom, phone, or a properly distanced hike. It sounds weird, but spending time doing something enjoyable with people you like can actually stimulate the vagus nerve (just like deep breathing, mentioned above), which can get out of a fight-or-flight stress state and into a calm parasympathetic-dominant state.


7. Do something that brings you joy.

Often, chronic stress is a result of being chronically in our own heads and overwhelmed with all the little details of life. 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. 


The Bottom Line…

Chronic stress can do a number on your digestive system, contributing to issues like constipation, bloating, and diarrhea. But engaging in activities, or loading up on nutrients, that mitigate the effects of stress on your body can have a dramatic positive impact on your mood and digestion. Just remember, stress isn’t the cause of all digestive problems, so if the steps above aren’t helping, be sure to see your doc.

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