Eat Slowly and Breathe – How Stress Affects Your Digestion and Weight

As most of us know, stress that’s left unchecked can contribute to many health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes. But have you thought about how it can directly affect your digestion and weight?

Stress causes:

  • Reduced blood flow to the gut by up to 75%
  • 20,000 fold decrease in enzymatic output to gut
  • Decreased growth hormone, thyroid hormone
  • Increased insulin & cortisol
  • Die-off of healthy gut bacteria
  • Impaired mitochondrial function
  • Excretion of all minerals and water soluble vitamins
  • Decreased oxygen uptake
  • Increased inflammation and oxidative stress
  • Decreased thermic efficiency (ability to calorie burn)

Digestion

Many of us regularly eat under stress and anxiety, which triggers our physiological stress response – an ancient evolutionary adaptation causing our heart rate to increase, our blood pressure to rise and blood to be shunted away from our midsection. This response was originally designed to give us the strength to run away from a lion ­– but these days the same response will occur if you’re running for the bus, rushing to get to a meeting, or stuffing down a quick sandwich as you continue to work at your desk. You could be eating really healthy food, but if your digestion shuts down, your body cannot fully digest, assimilate, and burn calories because the blood is going to your arms, legs and head for quick fighting, fleeing and thinking.

Stress means any threat, and your body’s response to it, but your brain can’t tell the difference between real or imagined threat, so the stress response can be triggered by anything from an upsetting remark made by a work colleague, or a negative thought about yourself (‘I’m so stupid…’), to seeing a violent or unpleasant image on your phone or receiving some bad news by text whilst eating lunch. As your stress hormones rise you begin to leach vitamins and minerals from your system. So you can be eating the world’s healthiest meal, but if you’re even a bit stressed, you’ve literally decreased the nutritional value of your meal. 

Weight

For those who are trying to lose weight, you may have what are called ‘toxic dietary beliefs’, which can cause stress and lead to weight gain. If you’re having thoughts such as ‘Food makes me fat’ or ‘Food is my enemy’, you will be causing a cascade of chemical events, resulting in the digestive system shutting down as part of the ‘fight or flight’ survival response. Elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, day in & day out, affects your calorie burning capacity, so the body holds on to weight.

So what can you do? Before you focus on what to eat, teach yourself how to eat.

  1. EAT SLOWLY

Take your time and think of time as an essential nutrient.

  • If you normally eat breakfast in 5 mins, bump it up to 10. If you normally take 10 mins, increase it to 15 or 20.
  • Give yourself at least 30 mins for lunch and dinner. See if you can increase it to an hour.
  • As best you can, enrol your family, co-workers and boss in creating more time and relaxation with meals.
  • Eat only sitting down. Don’t answer your phone, emails, or engage in any kind of work whilst you eat.
  • Have a slow eating contest! This can be in secret – you win if you finish last!
  • Imprint on your consciousness that fast food is out and slow food is in. It’s your new lifestyle. Try affirmations, meditation…

2. BREATHE

It takes less than a minute to de-stress the body and move it into maximum nutritional metabolism, so breathe consciously. Stress breathing is shallow and arrhythmic; relaxed breathing is deep and evenly paced. When the stress is over, you are likely to exhale with a deep sigh.

  • At every meal or snack, pause and ask ‘Am I about to eat this under stress? If yes, take 10 long, deep, slow breaths, pausing at the top of the breath for a few seconds. (If you are in company, others will think you are listening deeply to them!). By holding the breath, your brain is fooled into thinking that your blood pressure is rising. This dilates the blood vessels, which causes an overall drop in blood pressure and hence reduces the stress response.

Remember; breathe in more oxygen and you will burn food more fully as your metabolic ‘burning power’ is increased. This will make you a much more efficient calorie-burning machine, effectively reducing the number of calories on your plate!

Find out more

The field of Eating Psychology studies our relationship with food. What we eat is only half of the story of good nutrition – the other half is who we are as eaters.

Sue Bradley runs food education courses and programmes for those who want to change the way they eat and also for overeaters. Please visit www.eatingpsychology.co.uk for more information.