How Stress Impacts Digestion


We all have it, to some degree, some more than others.  To a certain extent, it is healthy; it keeps up sharp and in a life or death situation it will help us rise to the occasion.  Some of us overeat when we experience it, and we tend not to indulge in what’s good for us either. Let’s face it, when was the last time you thought about a plate of vegetables after a bad day?  We often don’t feel like ourselves, we might gain weight, lose sleep and some of us eventually end up sick: anything from a common cold to a serious disease.  Left untreated, it can leave us susceptible to long term physical and psychological problems.

Most of the energy produced for our organs comes the Parasympathetic Nervous System.  Our digestive and lymphatic systems fall into this category.  Our skeletal system is energized by the Sympathetic Nervous System.

Gastric juices found in the stomach are known as the “spark” for digestion (PNS), whereas the “sparkplugs” of the sympathetic nervous system are the adrenal glands.   The adrenal glands secrete hormones to maintain mineral and sugar balance within the body.  In emergencies they release what’s known as adrenalin and ephinepherine.  This takes energy away from the parasympathetic nervous system and reassigns it to the sympathetic system (skeletal).  This response is what’s known as Fight or flight.

Real physical danger is rarely a threat in our society today.  However our body reacts the same to emotional stress as physical, it can’t differentiate. Worry, overthinking, busyness and avoidance; any type of emotional stress, all cycle the fight or flight response unless we deal with the issue the moment they arise. We push them to the back of our minds, but they are always there. The chronic fight or flight leaves the body susceptible to disease, illness and infection as the immune system becomes suppressed.  The energy that would be used to fight these internal threats, which aren’t threats under normal circumstances, is instead being utilized towards the perceived physical stress.

Because most of our threats are emotional these days, if not dealt with constructively the body will continue to ‘shut down’ digestion and other ‘unnecessary’ systems in the moment to prepare for putting up a fight or fleeing the situation.  When that threat never goes away our adrenal glands become exhausted, we aren’t digesting and assimilating nutrients efficiently and we become fatigued, inflamed, depressed, anxious and other ailments begin to pop up.

The role of diet and lifestyle

Luckily, there are many positive methods to cope with emotional stress that will allow your body the relief it needs to function optimally.

Talk to someone – sort out the cause of the stress.  This can be with a good friend or counsellor.  It helps to get outside perspective.

Exercise – one of the many reasons people like to sweat when they are stressed. The body is already directing energy towards the skeletal system so why not put it to good use?  It helps clear the mind and body and allows you to view your situation with a clean slate.

Relax – Yoga, Ta Chi, Chi Qong, meditation and breathing techniques will allow your focus to be on the present moment rather than worry.  It helps restore harmony and balance within the body and we can cope with stress more effectively.

Diet – Try to avoid eating when stressed.  This is a common coping mechanism for so many people.  While most tend to go for junk foods for comfort and attribute that to weight gain, it is also due to the fact that the body is not digesting efficiently while stressed.

Tips for improving digestion

  1. Be Mindful: This is something we can all benefit from. Creating a calming, pleasant atmosphere around mealtime not only makes meals more enjoyable, it also gives you a break from your day and allows you to appreciate your food.
  2. Avoid drinking with meals. Unless you have a diagnosed medical condition, avoid drinking a lot of liquid while eating.  Instead, take small sips at room temperature to avoid diluting gastric juices.  Wait at least 30 minutes after a meal to begin drinking again.
  3. Chew your food: When your food is a paste, it is ready to be swallowed. Improper chewing leads to digestive and intestinal disturbances and can be also linked to food sensitivities.
  4. Make vegetables the center of your meals: Consider meat and carbohydrates to be condiments rather than the bulk of your plate.
  5. Try taking a digestive enzyme
  6. Turn off your cell phone, television, ipad and any other electronic that is distracting you from being present.


Many modern day ailments are exacerbated or even begin with stress.  Sleep disorders, metabolic issues, chronic pain, fatigue, depression, gut issues, weight problems, and inflammation are just a few common issues that have been linked.  Luckily through dietary and lifestyle management many of these can be controlled.

Have questions?  Book in for your free 15 minute consult to learn how dietary changes can improve your health today!

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