Research has shown that 16 million people experience a mental health problem each year, and stress is a key factor in this.
Small amounts of stress now and then are normal, and a little can be a good thing but when stress is ongoing, it can have significant effects on health and digestion.
When we are in the stressed ‘flight or fight mode’ our nervous system puts our digestive mechanisms into ‘shut down’ as the body focuses on our heart and breathing to cope with the perceived threat or stress. Long term this can create gut symptoms and difficulty digesting food. We need to support our body into the relaxed ‘rest and digest’ state to help our ‘second brain’ - the gut - properly break down meals and absorb nutrients.
What can you do? A really good technique for improving digestion and blood flow to the gut is breathing for relaxation. One example is the 4-7-8 technique: breathe in for 4, hold for 7, out for 8.
Try to avoid stress around food; take time over meals. Instead of eating ‘on the go’ or at your desk, slow down, eat mindfully, engage with your food and chew. Chew your food not your worries! 20-30 times per bite is recommended, especially if you are prone to bloating. Some digestive issues can be solved just by chewing for longer.
As well as managing stress through breathing, try increasing sleep, exercise and doing more of what makes you happy.
Eating foods which reduce stress and support gut health will also help. Variety is the key; aim for 5-6 vegetables (especially leafy greens) and fruit per day to provide the stress boosting nutrients: vitamin B, C and magnesium.
Omega 3 fatty acids (healthy fat) reduces anxiety and is found in nuts (another source of magnesium), seeds and oily fish.
Complex carbohydrates such as wholegrain rice, beans, pulses, sweet potato and oats enhance serotonin, the ‘happy hormone’. Many of the above foods provide fibre to help feed the all-important gut bacteria. Remember to balance these with good quality protein (plant or animal based).
Often people will rely more on caffeine, sugary foods and alcohol when stressed but the negative effects these have on the body will exacerbate anxiety and low mood. Everything in moderation, and the good news is that dark chocolate is proven to lower stress!
If you would like to find out more about how to support mental health through diet and lifestyle or you suffer from digestive issues or hormonal imbalance, I offer complementary 20 minute consultations.