Why You Shouldn't Yell At People While Eating: The Stress-Digestion Connection
Ok, who here has ever eaten a meal while having an argument with someone?
Come on, don’t be shy!
Well, I’m from a big Italian-American family from the east coast, so I’ve managed to have an argument doing pretty much everything...
And I can tell you from personal experience that when we are upset, digestion DOES. NOT. WORK. Food just sits there. Like a rock.
Why exactly is that??
Well the simplest answer is that when you are stressed – angry, upset, anxious, even really excited – your body decides it’s got much more important things to focus on than digesting a meal.
It's a great example of the impact of stress on your digestion.
And it actually makes sense! It just doesn’t always work in your favor, unfortunately. :(
FYI, I’m going to explain this interesting process in a bit more depth, and then at the end of this article I’ve got a great STRESS REDUCTION CHEAT SHEET for you to grab. So look out for that.
But first, let’s back it up a step and make sure we’re all on the same page...
So, what really is stress?
Stress is defined as a state of bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium.
And the thing that causes the stress (the bodily or mental tension) is most appropriately called a STRESSOR.
Stressors cause stress.
And there are lots of different types or stressors!
You may have noticed that earlier in this article I included “really excited” as an example of a state of stress, and you may have thought…
“Huh?? But being excited is a good thing!”
And it is…but even good things can bring the body out of equilibrium and create a type of stress.
Good stress is still stress!
When you're feeling strong emotions, your body is otherwise preoccupied and digestion just doesn't get priority. I’m sure you can think of a time in life when you got some amazing news or were getting ready for a super exciting event that you just had no appetite at all...
Kind-of how brides often don’t eat much on their wedding day…that’s due to good stress! Hopefully! ;)
So what really is happening to us when we’re under stress? Well, it’s a pretty cool process and rather complex. Many organs and different parts of the brain are involved in our stress-response.
But here’s the simple breakdown:
1. Your brain perceives stress and sends a signal to your adrenal glands, which are two small glands that sit on top of your kidneys.
2. The adrenal glands receive the message and begin to secrete the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol.
3. Chaos ensues.
Ok, that’s not really fair. It’s not really chaos at all.
It just feels like chaos sometimes! :)
What really happens is that these powerful stress hormones circulate around the body and cause the following to happen:
- Heart rate increases and blood pressure rises.
- This increases blood flow – and therefore oxygen - to your heart, brain and muscles in your arms and legs.
- Glucose is released into the blood to provide quick energy if needed
- Your muscles tense up. And….
- DIGESTION SHUTS DOWN. Blood is diverted away from your GI tract, and digestive secretions & intestinal motility are stopped.
Why, body? Why do such a crazy thing??
Well, the easiest way to answer this question is in the context of evolution and the rest of the animal kingdom…
Our stress response at its most basic is a fight or flight response. The type of stress we would have encountered in our history would have been something that we either needed to fight with or get away from. FAST!
So back then, and now, when we experience a perceived stressor, the body wants to use all the resources we have to deal with that stress...To get ready to fight or run!
So when we encounter a stressor, the functions of the body that aren’t needed to fight a bear or run from a lion sort-of shut down. It makes perfect sense from that perspective…
We can’t waste energy digesting a sandwich when we need to send everything we've got to our muscles and heart! Priorities!
But, alas, we live in a different world these days…
Thankfully, we’re not running from animal predators! (Score!)
But unfortunately we do have quite a bit of stress in our life. And part of the problem is this big ol’ brain we have. Soon after an animal escapes a predator, and that threat is gone, the animal's body returns to its pre-stress state.
But us humans, with our gifts of self-reflection and conscious memory, tend to stay in a state of stress, even when there is no more threat…
Thinking about it, worrying about, remembering it, reliving it.
Most of us suffer from chronic, lingering, low-grade stress.
So, getting back to the impact on digestion…We talked about why stress hinders digestion, but what does this actually look like in people?
Usually it looks like one or more of these scenarios:
- Decreased digestive enzymes and decreased motility causing heartburn, pain, gas, bloating and/or constipation.
- Increased motility causing diarrhea. (The body does not need extra baggage when running from a lion!)
- Increased stomach acid causing heart burn.
- Lack of appetite causing poor nutrition and blood sugar issues.
It's pretty clear that stress negatively impacts digestion. And most of us already know that too much stress is harmful for our health in general. But what do we do about it?
The first step in stress management is to look objectively at the stressors in your life and determine which are in your control to change, and which are not.
This is such an important distinction!
For the stressors that we do have control over, we can make a plan to reduce them or at least cope with them better. Not that this is an easy feat! It may take a lot of time and effort...
But it's a whole heck of a lot easier than struggling against things that we can't change! That's why we need to know the difference.
With stress that is out of our control, acceptance is the path to peace.
And regardless of whether the stressors are in or out of your control, stress management through lifestyle and nutrition are vital!
Good sleep, healthy diet, regular exercise and supportive relationships are the foundation of stress management.
Simple but not easy! Though maybe better than running from tigers. :)