When we experience stress, whether triggered by a short-term event or a more chronic situation, the body responds. Our nervous system moves into alert, initiating a fight or flight reaction.
This reactivity has some broad implications for our internal systems as they respond to stress in a multitude of ways.
Cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone, is released and circulates throughout the body. This hormone initiates responses such as:
- Our muscles become more tense and activated
- Our heart rate and breath rate increase
- Our pupils constrict, and
- Our digestion slows
It’s important to note that our system responds to stress as it recognizes it, which can be real or perceived. For instance, in the case of perceived stress, a stress response is sometimes triggered by an emotion or mind state that is present.
These shifts can have far-reaching impact, too; they can affect our ability to sleep and influence our mood and our overall sense of well-being. Because our internal systems are so interwoven, when we notice a disruption in one area, chances are we will see it in others.
But the fact that our internal environment is so connected also provides an opportunity to mitigate the stress response, calm our internal environment, and reduce inflammation. We can do this by drawing our awareness to our digestive system.
So why is this system so important?
Our gut is ground zero for our well-being.
- Our gut processes what we eat and drink and helps make nutrients bioavailable for our body
- It’s the place certain neurotransmitters are produced that affect mood and sleep/wake cycles
- Many lymph nodes are located around the gut that influence immune functionality
- Our Enteric Nervous system is housed here, which communicates with the brain via the Vagus nerve. This means what happens in our gut gets translated from bottom up, so to speak, sending valuable information to the brain.
- It receives information from top down, so our mind states and emotions affect the gut’s ability to function optimally.
A lot of research is now being done to understand the connection between gut functionality/digestion, well-being, and stress. Specifically, many researchers are looking at the microbiome, an ecosystem of bacteria and other related organisms that line our gut and play a significant role in digestion and the above-mentioned bullet points.
Without getting too detailed, some important things to know about the microbiome:
- Help break down and process our food
- Produce and release serotonin and dopamine (our feel-good hormones) in our body
- Produce melatonin (along with the brain), the hormone that helps regulate our wake/sleep cycle
When cortisol is elevated in our system due to stress, digestion can become impaired or stagnant. But there are things we can do to aid our digestion, supporting it even in times of stress.
For starters, we can examine what we are eating or not eating, the times of day in which we eat, and the WAY in which we are eating.
Consider the following questions:
Am I distracted or multi-tasking at mealtimes?
Am I snacking late at night or grazing mindlessly during the day?
Am I eating in the car or on the go?
These are just a few considerations that might point to ways we can offer our systems a little extra support. Based on your responses, for instance, you may want to consider expanding the time between meals so the body can digest without feeling overloaded and your system doesn’t have to work constantly. Just like we need sleep, our digestive system needs time when it’s allowed to rest.
At least four hours between meals is ideal so the migrating motor complex can do its processing and move food along. This timeframe also prevents the build-up of harmful bacteria that can cause bloating or dysbiosis in the gut.
You may need to consider eating more mindfully, too. Taking time to chew food properly and eating meals without doing other activities (like working!) is extremely good for the system.
Eating slowly, even setting a timer to prevent the tendency of hurrying through your meal, will calm your internal environment. Allow mealtimes to feel spacious and calm and be sure to set aside time that is only for that purpose. This calms the nervous system and makes nutrient absorption more available.
It is also helpful to avoid eating your evening meal too late at night, ensuring there is time to digest a bit before sleep.
Next, let’s consider foods that can trigger inflammation in the body, amplifying the stress response.
- Stimulants such as caffeine - Stimulants can raise the heart rate, cause the jitters, and inflame the gut causing distress in an already-agitated system. Now, I understand how important the ritual of a morning beverage can be, so if it feels too much to remove caffeine completely, try to have a caffeinated drink (just one) in the morning, as caffeine stays in the body for eight hours.
If you are prone to feeling jittery or uneasy when you are faced with a challenge, caffeine can amplify that feeling. As an alternative, try swapping it for Matcha tea, a type of green tea that’s lower in caffeine content and has l-theanine in it. Studies have linked consuming I-theanine to reduced stress. It’s also more delicate and lower in acidity making it gut friendly.
- Sugar – Sugar causes inflammation in our body, there’s no question about it. It’s also significantly less nutrient dense than whole foods, leaving us feeling less satisfied, more hungry, and depleted of energy.
- Processed foods – Processed foods are foods made with too many ingredients (many include unnatural or denatured components) that the body has difficulty breaking down—like starches and stabilizers. These are meant for shelf life in a store, not for our bodies. These foods have a knack for stagnating digestion, causing inflammation and bloating.
- Alcohol - Alcohol can cause digestion to be impacted, can trigger inflammation, and can disrupt sleep.
- Cold and raw foods - These foods should be reduced when possible. When we give an already-disrupted digestive system food that takes longer to break down and process (like cold and raw foods), it has a negative result. We can experience bloating, constipation, and not feeling ‘right.’
So we’ve got an understanding of the heavy-hitters on the ‘do not eat’ list, what about the foods we should be prioritizing? Below are a list of foods that reduce the felt experience of stress and actually BENEFIT our digestive system!
- Herbal teas like chamomile, peppermint, liquorice, fresh lemon and ginger with honey are soothing.
- Dark leafy greens and foods high in magnesium like pumpkin seeds, almonds, avocado, broccoli. Magnesium is a muscle relaxant, it calms our muscles, the lining of our gut, and soothes agitation.
- Foods high in omega 3 fatty acids such as oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines) or plant-based sources like flax seeds and chia seeds are wonderful sources.
- Collagen helps repair the gut lining, aids in nutrient absorption, contains L-glutamine (which is known to reduce inflammation), among other benefits. It’s found in bone broths, soups, or roasted high-quality organic meats cooked on the bone. You can also buy collagen supplements (both flavored or unflavored are available) that you can add into soups, drinks, or into your rice or grains as they cook.
- Warm, soothing foods are easier to digest and to assimilate than their cold and raw counterparts. Soups, stir fry, and roasting foods will be a welcome support to your gut.
I have two of my favorite go-to recipes that help calm my system when I’m noticing agitation or stress that I’d love to share with you below. Give them a try and see how they make your system feel!
RECIPE 1: Kitcheree
Kitcheree is a wonderful, gluten-free, and vegetarian dish that is supportive of digestive well-being. It is considered one of the best healing foods in Ayerveda, an ancient holistic healing system originating in India. This is a rice-based dish that’s easy to prepare and incredibly flavorful. This particular recipe comes from Jasmine Hemsley, from her book East By West: Simple Recipes for Ultimate Mind-Body Balance.
1 cup mung dal
½ cup of white basmati rice
4 cardamom pods (cracked open a bit with the back of a spoon)
2 Bay leaves
5 cups of water
Optional – 2 cups of finely chopped veg like greens or roots veg top add in
1 tsp of each – pepper, ground coriander seeds, ground fennel seeds, ½ inch of chopped fresh ginger, sea salt
2 tsp of cumin seeds, mustard seeds, turmeric
3 olive oil or ghee
*You can adjust the spicing or omit as you like!
Rinse the rice and mung beans until the water runs clear. Add ghee or olive oil to a large pot; once warm, add in all the spices on a medium heat to warm and become fragrant, careful not to burn or overheat! Stir in mung and rice and add the 5 cups (or more) of water and veg if adding. Once boiling, reduce to a simmer with the lid on; cook for at least 40 minutes or until rice and mung are soft. Kitcheree has a porridge-like consistency. Adjust spices as you like!
RECIPE 2: Easy bone broth Vegetable soup
Liquid bone broth – you can purchase from a butcher, health foods stores, or online; or you can make your own. (I buy a liquid broth and use 1 heaping tbsp. per 2 cups of soup.)
Three large carrots chopped into equal sized pieces (you can also swap carrots for courgettes and fennel)
Two inches of finely chopped fresh ginger
2 tsp of cumin seeds
1 small, dried chili
3 cups of water
3 tablespoons of olive oil
Pour olive oil into a medium pot; once warm, add in carrots, ginger, spices, and simmer for about eight (8) minutes. Add in the water and bone broth. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 20 minutes with the lid on. Once the carrots are soft, use a handheld blender to blitz the soup into a puree. That’s it - you’re ready to eat!
Janine holds a Master of Public Health and is a RYT vinyasa and yin yoga teacher. She is a certified Wellness Coach with the Institutes for Integrative Nutrition, and is currently enrolled in the 500 Hr Insight Yoga Institute. You can learn more about Janine on her website or @janinetandyyoga.
Practice live with Janine on studio BE on Tuesdays at 6 AM PT / 9 AM ET / 3 PM CET for a short Breathe and Stretch Break and on Wednesdays at 9 AM PT / 12 noon ET / 6 PM CET for Mindful Flow .