Stress and Digestion
By: Beth McHugh 2006
Stress affects most organs of the body and the stomach is no exception. Stress can cause those familiar knots in the stomach, some types of ulcers, constipation, diarrhea, poor absorption of nutrients leading to further ill health, and oversecretion of stomach acids. If all this sounds like a pain in the gut, it is!
Of course, not all these conditions are caused by stress alone, but a person who is subjected to chronic stressors in their life will almost always suffer some form of digestional difficulty. It may be a sore stomach, frequent burping, heartburn or gastric reflux, or bouts of “the runs.”
There are ways to minimize the effects of stress on digestion but prior to trying any of the tips below, please see your doctor to rule out other physical causes of gastrointestinal problems.
The following tips are designed to reduce abdominal problems associated with stress. These exercises will also have the added benefit of reducing other stress-related symptoms you may experience.
1. Learn correct breathing
Diaphragmatic breathing has been included for centuries in most Eastern meditational methods, but luckily we were all born knowing how to breathe properly so it is just a question of re-learning proper breathing techniques. Learning to breathe properly lowers the heart rate and the metabolic rate, thus calming every system in the body including any overactivity of the digestive system. For a great article on learning to breathe properly see Learning to Relax (2)
2. Incorporate stress management techniques into your daily life
Find a relaxation CD that really suits you and relaxes you. Here are lots on the market and a trip to your local library will allow you to sample any number for free until you find one that really resonates with you. Use it every day. There is really nothing as important in your life as your own health, so give yourself the gift of 15-20 minutes per day to relax. The more you learn to relax the easier it becomes. If you need the discipline of attending a class, do so. Any means that allows you to really let go once a day will have an enormous impact on your digestive health.
Yes, that old one, but it works like a charm. And it’s free! Exercise is one of the best ways to relax your body by letting out built-up tensions, thoughts, and feelings in a productive way. If you hate the gym, find a physical pastime such as gardening or a sport that you enjoy. Letting go of stress while you grow your own veggies and flowers or score goals for your home team is a great way to lower stress and alow that tense stomach to let go.
4. Eat regular meals
Skipping meals is a no-no for upset stomachs as is overeating at one meal. If indigestion is particularly bad, eat 5-6 small meals per day rather than three larger ones. Make sure your evening meal is several hours before going to bed, and never lie down straight after a meal, or worse, eat lying down. Remain in a vertical position, either standing or sitting for at least 30 minutes after a meal. This will aid digestion and prevent heartburn, burping, and constipation. Avoid fast food, sugar-laden foods, and caffeine. Caffeine is found in tea, coffee, chocolate and cola drinks and is an irritant of the digestive tract. Learn to listen to your body. It’s very good at letting you know what are its likes and dislikes when you are under stress.
5. Positive talk
All the positive moves outlined above can be compromised if you frequently indulge in negative self-talk. The same holds true for talking about negative subjects during a meal or dining with people who are negative in themselves and either bring you down or worse, make you angry.
Negative emotions such as sadness and anger interfere with the digestive process and it is best to avoid issues and people that cause any increase in heart rate while you are eating. If such a problem exists in your household, try eating the family meal in silence, or at least the main course. This method is useful on days where there is a known problem occurring, and is not intended to be used on a regular basis.
Mealtimes are meant to be a time when the family meets up for the day. But on occasions where strife is on the menu, it can be useful to light a candle in the center of the table and eat in silence. The issue can be resolved at a later time when digestion will not be affected.
There are many other tips for avoiding stress-induced digestion problems. By listening to your body and reading its needs, you can come up with tips of your own.