In Part I, we discussed the science behind how the mind and digestive system interact. Now that we have that foundation, let’s explore how we can combat stress and its negative effects on your digestion.
Cause and Effect
As we discussed in Part I, the digestive system itself can cause stress. So the first step toward healing is to determine the source of your stress. If you have no obvious cause in your daily life, then a trip to your doctor is in order. He or she can help you take a hard look at your gut to see if it is actually the cause of your stress and not the effect.
Next, you need to learn to listen to your gut. Remember, that the digestive system is the body’s emotional barometer. Your upset, whatever it is, will probably appear here first. Listen and discern. For example:
- If you are constipated, ask yourself: “Where am I unable to let go? What causes me to contract? What thoughts or feelings do I need to get rid of?”
- If you have heartburn, ask: “Where have I been burned? Or where am I burning with a grudge? What am I angry about?”
- If you feel nauseous, ask: “What do I fear?”
- If you are binge eating, ask: “What am I looking for? What do I really want or need?”
Only you can connect your digestive problems with your thoughts and feelings, and by doing this you can discover cause and effect. Then, record your findings, so that you can see links and patterns.
Examine Your Diet
What do you eat?
Healthy foods are: fresh fruits and vegetables; lean meats; low fat dairy; whole grains. However, as we discussed in other posts, not all of us can abide by these general rules. Chances are you may have a problem with one or more of these food groups (even if it’s only the fact that healthy foods are usually more expensive than the unhealthy stuff).
- If you are gluten intolerant, remember that you must exclude only three grains–wheat, barley, and rye. Look for the least processed–most whole–forms of the grains you can have.
- If you are lactose intolerant, use lactase enzyme supplements to enable you to have dairy. Or if your case is severe, use a dairy substitute that is well fortified with calcium, and is high in protein and low in sugar.
- If you are vegan, explore a wide variety of protein sources. Don’t rule out eggs, and consume plenty of milk products, as well as nuts, seeds and vegetables high in protein.
- If the fiber in fresh fruits and vegetables is too much for your system to handle, go to the frozen food aisle–that is the next best place to get the nutrients these foods offer. Then, be careful how you cook them–steam or microwave them to preserve as much original nutrition as possible.
- If the price tag is the problem, you must be creative and willing to work. Grow your own vegetables. Grind your own flour. Buy meat in bulk and freeze it yourself. Notice that the shelf life of dairy substitutes is much longer than that of their dairy counterparts, so shop sales, buy in bulk, and freeze margarine and cheese products.
A couple more notes: first, do not skimp on protein. It is the basic building block of all cells, and is essential to making hormones and neurotransmitters used to regulate your mood. Second, if you suffer from constipation or diarrhea, do not skimp on fiber. Too much fiber may be your problem, but not enough fiber is more likely the culprit. Experiment to find the best form and amount for your body.
How do you eat?
How you eat is as important as what you eat. (I discovered this as I was researching for this article. The few simple changes I’ve made in the days since have helped me greatly!)
- Eat mindfully. Do not eat simply to recharge; eat to enjoy your food. Do not eat on the run; sit at a place meant for eating and relax. Do not multitask while eating; focus on the tastes and textures of your food, or on who you are eating with.
- Chew! Chew! Chew! Remember, your mouth is part of your digestive system. Chewing your food thoroughly can make a big difference in your digestion. Try to chew each mouthful 20 times. Not only does this break down the food, your saliva also adds enzymes which start digestion before your food ever reaches your stomach.
When do you eat?
You probably have heard that you need to eat breakfast, but did you know that it really should be the largest meal of your day? This is especially true if you are trying to lose weight because it gives you all day to work off those calories.
Likewise, dinner or supper should be your smallest meal of the day. Ideally, if you want to lose weight, this meal should be eaten before 4:00 PM, so you can burn up those calories before bed time. Just imagine if you really did this, then there would be no problem about wanting to eat a big breakfast!
Even if losing weight is not your goal, the earlier and lighter your evening meal is, the better you will be able to digest it. Your digestive system just doesn’t work efficiently when you are lying down, and inefficient digestion creates stress. If you absolutely must eat in bed, or lie down after eating, lay on your right side, or lay with your upper body elevated.
What and when do you drink?
Consider your fluid intake. Dehydration causes stress. When you are dehydrated you will have trouble concentrating, mood swings, cloudy thinking, and fatigue. A 2012 study at the University of Connecticut showed that even mild dehydration makes us more irritable, anxious, and angry.
How much fluid should you be getting in a day? Obviously it depends on what you are doing, how much you are sweating, and what medications you may be taking. But the rule of thumb is that you need about two to three liters per day.
All fluids are not created equal, however. Alcohol and caffeinated beverages are diuretics–they actually cause the kidneys to pump more fluid out of the body. Also, many drinks are loaded with sugar substitutes. These can create sugar cravings which will stress you out. Drink fluids that are as close to their natural form as possible.
Having said this, there is one time when you should not be drinking. Surprisingly, it’s when you normally think about drinking. It is while you are eating a meal. The fluids you drink while you eat, dilute and wash away your saliva and stomach acid, which are full of needed digestive enzymes. Also, it’s tempting to wash down mouthfuls of food that you have not properly chewed. It’s recommended that you drink a full glass of water 20-30 minutes before a meal and again 20-30 minutes after a meal. This will get you hydrated without hindering digestion.
In the battle against stress, one mineral is essential–magnesium. Magnesium helps to stabilize blood sugar and boost overall energy levels. It can also help to improve depression symptoms.
Be aware of the B family of vitamins because they are important for good nerve health. B6 and B12 play an especially key role in healthy brain function.
Digestive enzymes are a supplement you may want to consider. These can be specific, like Beano© or Lactaid©, or they can be a combination of many enzymes that you might need during a meal. Personally, I have found these to be very helpful, but not when taken as directed–which is with your first mouthful of food. When I began drinking a glass of water 20 minutes before my meal, I took my Digestive Enzyme Complex pill then, and I found that it worked much better for me. This is not the recommended way, so I only suggest you try it if taking enzymes at the start of the meal doesn’t seem as beneficial as it should.
Another supplement you need to consider for digestive distress is a probiotic. This will put the beneficial “good” bacteria into your gut. Be careful as all probiotics are not created equal. Read the label, and know that usually you are getting what you pay for. (I’ve had bad reactions to cheap probiotics.)
Slow Down and Breathe
This is the best advice for combating stress while you are eating. Enjoy the moment. Taste your food. Remember, the best metabolism takes place when you are relaxed.
Listen to your gut when it flares up at you. What are you feeling? What have you eaten? When did you eat it? What did you do just before or after eating? When did you drink last, and what was it?
Take care of your digestion and it will take care of you!
Please share your experiences and thoughts with me in the comments section below. Thank you!