How Stress Can Affect Your Digestion and Nutritional Status

I’m sure most will agree with me when I say that stress is something we could use a little bit less of. I am still working on mastering the fine art of stress management myself, but I have become quite adept at making sure I get my daily dose of self-care (you should too!). None of us are immune from stress – it is just a part of being human. But it does not have to have the final say on your health.

What Happens to Our Bodies When We Experience Stress

We do need a little bit of stress in our lives; this is known as acute stress. However, when stress becomes a chronic part of our day-to-day, we start to break down. Literally. Our bodies become fatigued, we cannot think clearly, our digestion gets thrown off, and our nutritional status is compromised. And these symptoms are just the tip of the iceberg. Chronic stress can lead to much more serious conditions if we don’t prioritize those bubble baths.

Experiencing acute stress allows our bodies to focus on important functions when threatened, such as dilating the pupils for sharper vision and providing more oxygen to the brain for problem solving. Acute stress trains the body to regulate itself when faced with a threatening situation and then to return systems to normal when the stressor is removed.

When we experience stress, the body goes into the sympathetic state (also known as “fight or flight”) – it is preparing to run away screaming or to put up its dukes and fight. Salivation is inhibited, digestion and detoxification are suppressed, fat is deposited, fatty acid metabolism is impaired, hormones are thrown off. In other words, the body is shutting down functions it does not need for overcoming the stressor. If you are eating while in a state of stress, your body does not get the message that it is supposed to be digesting. Hello, heartburn!

On the flip side, the parasympathetic state is our body’s “rest and digest” state. Think margarita on the beach. Yeah…that feeling. Salivation is stimulated, the heartbeat is slowed, digestion occurs, bile is released, the bladder contracts. We calm down and are in a relaxed state. This is the state that is optimal for digestion and the state we should be in when we eat.

How Chronic Stress Interferes With Nutritional Status

Stress can wreak havoc on our digestive system, causing symptoms such as indigestion, diarrhea, constipation, heartburn, and/or weight loss resistance. Stress can also lead to depleted nutrition because your body is putting its resources into dealing with the stress instead of digesting your food and absorbing its nutrients. So, you might be taking extra measures to eat healthy but if you are not managing your stress levels, then you may not be absorbing and utilizing as much nutrition from your food.

How to Eat in a Parasympathetic State

Put down the phone. Back away from the remote control. Multi-tasking registers as stress in the mind (tell that to your boss!). It’s all about focusing on one thing and one thing only: eating that delicious, nutritious meal in front of you.

It may not feel like you have control over how your body responds to stress, but you can teach yourself to calm down with practice. You can put yourself in a parasympathetic state and you don’t even need a margarita or a beach! In fact, your best tool will be your breath.

Here’s how: before each meal, start by taking a few deep breaths before you chow down. Light some candles, play some gentle music – whatever makes the atmosphere feel calm and relaxing. As you eat, savor your food, chewing slowly. Continue to breathe. Notice textures, flavors, how each bite makes you feel both physically and mentally. Finish your meal with several deep breaths. Be grateful for the sustenance that this meal is providing you with.

Eating in a calm state without the distraction of television or your phone can improve your digestion and help you absorb more nutrients from your food (I don’t know about you, but this concept blows my mind!). In addition, when we eat mindfully like this, we tend not to overeat because our brain is not distracted by other stimuli. We also tend to be more satisfied with our meal.

There’s a Tea for That

There are several teas that can help support you during times of stress and help guide you to a parasympathetic state. A cup of hot tea brings me so much peace and comfort after a stressful work day. Some of my favorites include tulsi and catnip tea.

  • Tulsi tea helps support the adrenals, which can become worn out when the body experiences prolonged stress. It can balance out cortisol, a hormone elevated by stress. My favorite flavor of tulsi tea is Organic India’s Sweet Rose.
  • Catnip tea can help alleviate anxiety and promote sleep. It has very calming effects. Learn more about catnip tea.

Managing your stress will go a long way in helping you life a healthier life. Whether you have digestive problems or are trying to lose weight, mindful eating is a great tool to incorporate. If you feel like you need extra support for managing your stress, please reach out!

I’d love to hear what helps you de-stress! Comment below and let me know.



Mindful eating. Harvard Health Publications. Published 2011.

O’Reilly GA, Cook L, Spruijt-Metz D, Black DS. Mindfulness-Based Interventions for Obesity-Related Eating Behaviors: A Literature Review. Obesity reviews : an official journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity. 2014;15(6):453-461. doi:10.1111/obr.12156.

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