The holidays are right around the corner and it’s a stressful time of year. That holiday stress can really take a toll on your body. But have you ever considered that it can even affect your digestion? According to medical experts, stress can affect every part of the digestive system.
Digestion is controlled by the enteric nervous system, a system composed of hundreds of millions of nerves that communicate with the central nervous system. When stress activates the “flight or fight” response in your central nervous system, digestion can shut down because your central nervous system shuts down blood flow, affects the contractions of your digestive muscles, and decreases secretions needed for digestion. Stress can cause inflammation of the gastrointestinal system, and make you more susceptible to infection.
Stress can cause your esophagus to go into spasms. It can increase the acid in your stomach causing indigestion. Under stress, the mill in your stomach can shut down and make you feel nauseous. Stress can cause your colon to react in a way that gives you diarrhea or constipation. We’ve all heard of the athlete or the student who has to rush to the bathroom before the big game or the big exam. Although stress may not actually cause stomach ulcers, celiac disease, or inflammatory bowel disease, it can definitely make these and other diseases of digestion worse.
What can you do?
Relaxation exercises – These simple routines help you learn to let go of physical tension by methodically relaxing all parts of the body. A simple exercise might include lying in a quiet place and slowly releasing the tension in your body, starting with the face and neck, then moving on to relax the shoulders, back, chest, arms, hands, stomach, legs and feet. Practicing breathing exercises that emphasize the importance of deep, slow breathing can also be helpful. When you feel stress mounting, just taking a quick break to refocus can make a big difference.
Relax before you eat – When you sit down for a meal, instead of digging right in, pause for a moment and relax to start off right. Before you even pick up your fork, take a slow, deep breath and try to release any tension in your muscles. Eat slowly and enjoy your food, chewing it thoroughly and focusing on the nutrients and energy your meal is providing you. Try not to let yourself dwell on stressful thoughts or situations during this time. Simply enjoy your mealtime and allow your body to utilize the nourishment it needs.
Reduce and manage stress – We are often in greater control of our daily stressors than we realize. We cannot always change situations that are causing us stress, but we can always choose to deal with them in a way that doesn’t damage our health.
Eat well – Natural, whole foods are the best choice for digestion. Processed, unnatural foods will only cause stress in the body. Choose natural fats, quality proteins and especially foods rich in probiotics like kefir and yogurt to nourish your entire digestive system.
A certain amount of holiday stress is inevitable. It’s important to recognize that stress can upset healthy digestion and make many digestive difficulties worse.