Effects of stress on your digestive system and how to relax it

Effects of stress on your digestive system and how to relax it

Have you ever had that “butterfly” experience in your stomach when you are feeling vulnerable? Or an upset tummy before exams, an important meeting or presentation? Perhaps you notice that you are tense in your stomach, when running late or stuck in traffic? Stressful events can cause different emotional responses, such as fear or anger, but they also cause an immediate physical reaction: your breathing can become more rapid and shallow, the heart beats faster and your stomach tightens. This is your body´s response, getting ready to run away or fight back, even before your conscious mind realises it.

If you have digestive problems or experience tummy troubles that you think relates to stress, then this article is for you. After looking in more depth at why our digestive system might react the way it does to stress, we share five practical tips to improve your digestive health.

What is the link between digestive problems and stress?

Our brain is wired to look for threats or rewards and informs us of these by releasing chemical messages. These chemical messages are linked to emotions. When stressful situations occur, two hormones called adrenalin and cortisol are released. These hormones trigger a physical response in our body, preparing it to get ready to fight or run away. Conversely, when we experience something nice or rewarding, such as a hug or someone doing something nice, the brain releases oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin. This trio of chemicals give us pleasant feelings, sending a message to relax and rest.

Sometimes, the responses and reactions of our emotions are faster than our thoughts. Indeed, our emotions can sometimes be so strong that we are unable to think rationally. In turn, these emotions can cause or contribute to our digestive stress. When we experience feelings of pain or discomfort it can affect our emotions, which in turn can lead to a downward spiral. To help bring you back into balance, read on for five tips to help your tummy feel more at ease.

1. Practice mindful eating

Our lives are often busy, and often we don´t give ourselves time to sit down and eat properly. For a short time, our bodies can cope with us eating on the run. However, over time, this can contribute to digestive problems. By changing our eating habits, listening to our “nutrition intuition” and eating mindfully we can lessen the effect of stress on our digestion, have better weight management and a develop a healthier relationship with food.

Mindfulness is a non-judgemental observation of our present moment and we can use it to develop a deeper awareness of ourselves and our environment. Mindful eating is when we pay attention to our eating habits, the thoughts and feelings we have about food and the sensations we experience when we eat. We change the focus of our mind onto how we are eating rather than on what we are eating.

Here are some practical tips to help you eat mindfully:

  • Sit down at a table for your meals. Make dedicated time to eat so that you can make it an enjoyable experience. For example, move away from your desk when you are at work, instead go out and sit in a park or eating area.
  • Take away distractions like mobile phones and televisions so that you can focus on what you are eating and how you are eating it.
  • Take some time to smell your food. Smell is one of the first triggers to activate the digestive system and is an important part in the digestive process. This helps to activate the digestive enzymes to help your body digest your food more effectively.
  • Deliberately make time to sit down and really taste the food you are eating. By doing this you can develop a more conscious relationship with food.
  • Take the time to chew your food slowly. Notice the sensations in your mouth and on your taste buds.
  • Put down your knife and fork between mouthfuls. When your fork is in your hand the brain is already anticipating the arrival of food into your mouth. When we place our utensils down, we take time to pause and focus on the taste or texture of the food itself. It also gives your stomach time to tell the brain that you are full, which can help you to avoid overeating, thereby reducing stress on the digestive system.
  • Chew your food completely, until it becomes like liquid. This activates the digestive enzymes in the mouth, which in turn prepare those in the stomach and gut to get ready to receive food. When food is well chewed, it is broken down and more easily digested.
  • Try to eat at similar times every day so your body develops a rhythm with its food and digestion.

To learn more about the benefits of mindfulness and developing your senses to a whole new level why not read our article on the mindfulness of sensations?

2. Be aware and balance emotions before eating

Balancing our feelings before we eat is another important way to reduce tummy stress.

Emotions, like frustration, sadness, anger or boredom, can trigger us into eating, even when we are not hungry. If you eat because you feel stressed it´s likely that you will not chew your food properly. You might also over-eat because your brain isn’t getting the message that your stomach is full. Both put stress on your digestive system.

Before eating, take a moment to notice your emotional state. Are you calm or feeling frustrated? Start to recognise your “non-hunger” triggers – do certain feelings, situations or times of the day, make you reach for food? Watch out for other non-hunger triggers such as boredom, loneliness, stress or physical factors. You can read our article on nutrition and food to balance emotions to find out more.

It’s important to stay in touch with how your body feels during the day and how your appetite fluctuates. A dip in energy or a rumbly tummy are signs that you might be hungry.

Before you eat, place your hands in your lap and keep your knife and fork on the table. Take a few deep, slow breaths in and out before you begin to eat. Gauge how you feel. Try to release any strong feelings and give a few moments to settle your yourself before picking up your utensils to eat.

3. Is it hunger or thirst?

Sometimes, we think we are hungry, when we are simply thirsty. Staying hydrated can help our bodies to recognise its needs more quickly and will aid digestion. Stress can cause dehydration and dehydration can cause stress, so it can become a vicious cycle. Dehydration and electrolyte imbalance can halt digestion, because the body tries to counterbalance the effects of holding onto excess water into an attempt to stay hydrated. Drink water regularly throughout the day to combat this and keep your digestion running smoothly. Here are some useful tips on staying hydrated this summer.

4. Give yourself a relaxing abdominal massage

When you experience digestive problems due to stress, you can give yourself a relaxing two-minute massage. This can help calm the nervous system.

Stress can cause the muscles and tissues of the abdomen to tense up, which can slow down the digestive process. It can also cause inflammation to build up in the digestive system, leading to problems like constipation, bloating, gas and diarrhoea. This simple two-minute massage, before eating a meal (or anytime you notice your tummy is tight) can really help to relax the nervous and digestive systems:

  • Lie on your back on a yoga mat or somewhere comfortable. Bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor.
  • Place both hands on the bottom left hand corner of your abdomen. Massage this area in a circular motion with your palms and fingertips. You don’t need oils to do this and can do it on top of light clothing.
  • Move from the left to right side of your abdomen in a clockwise direction, up towards your ribcage, and then along the bottom of your rib cage from right to left, then back to the start. Apply gentle pressure and move sensitively over the areas that feel tender to you. Breathe slowly and deeply as you do the massage.
  • Repeat this until the tight areas of your abdomen feel more relaxed. Don’t worry if you hear a few gurgling sounds as you do this. It´s just your digestive organs letting go.

5. Breathing exercises to reduce your tummy stress.

When we learn to breathe slowly and deeply, we can create a relaxation response in our body that calms both the mind and body. The easiest and most effective way to do this is through using our diaphragm and do deep abdominal breathing. This can reduce our tension, stopping the fight or flight response and triggering the relaxation response.

When we look at new-born babies, cats or dogs we can see a deep steady rhythm in their breath. Their bellies rise and fall with the breath. This is deep natural breathing. In this type of breath, the stomach expands and the diaphragm moves downward, which creates more space for the lungs to fill with air. Breathing through your abdomen is like a balloon rising and then sinking back down again.

Follow these step by step instructions to breathe more deeply, to help you release your tummy stress:

  • Find a comfortable, quiet location and lie in a flat position with your knees bent or supported with cushion.
  • Place one hand on your tummy and one hand on your chest.
  • Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose into your abdomen. Breathe only as deeply as feels comfortable for you today. As you breathe in, allow your tummy to rise (think of it like a balloon expanding). Your chest will remain still or move only slightly.
  • Exhale through your mouth, making a quiet, relaxing whooshing sound as you gently blow out. As you breathe out, allow your abdomen to fall, naturally and softly. (Think of it like a balloon deflating).
  • Continue to practice for two to three minutes. Your abdomen should rise as you breathe in and fall as you breathe out.
  • When you feel comfortable, you can add the next step.
  • Count “one” as you breathe in. Say “release”, “calm” or “let go” as you breathe out.
  • Keep your attention focused on the word “one” as you breathe in, and the relaxing word as you breathe out. Release any other thoughts, distractions or sounds.
  • Continue breathing until you notice a relaxation in your tummy, or until you can count to ten with your deep abdominal breath.

This breathing technique has a wonderful additional result, in that it can help to reduce stress. Deep breathing techniques can be practiced on their own, or as part of your yoga practice. Read about the other benefits to breath which you can check out in our article about restorative yoga.

6. Other things you can do to reduce tummy stress

After practicing all the above, we hope that any digestive problems you experience due to stress will reduce. However, there are lots of other things you can also do.

Double check

Sometimes your tummy stress can be something more than just stress. If your symptoms have been going on for a long time it may be time to consult your doctor. Digestive problems can mirror symptoms of some gastrointestinal disorders, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), ulcerative colitis, Crohn´s disease or gastroenteritis. Seek help from a suitable professional.

Practice meditation

Taking time out, 10 to 15 minutes a day, for meditation can help you to become aware and reduce general feelings of stress. There are many ways to meditate so you might need to try a few to find one that works for you. We offer daily meditation at the retreat if you want to try some different techniques and get into a regular practice. Here are some useful tips to find a comfortable meditation position to get you going.

Do certain foods cause stress?

Some foods might irritate your digestive system and can cause tummy stress, acid, bloating or wind. In this month´s sister article, digestive health part 1: plant-based food for tummy trouble relief we look at the healing aspects of food as well as those that stress our tummy further. You might also like to read digestive health part 2: the digestive system, for a fuller understanding of how the digestive system works and for more tips to try at home.

Finally, do remember that healing your digestive stress may take some time. By creating a more mindful and balanced approach to life you can take steps towards eliminating your stress for good. By being mindful and addressing the biological, psychological and social aspects of eating you can develop good, long habits that can lead to have a more balanced approach in life.