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Nutrition and Stress

The relationship between our gut health and nervous system through the lens of gentle nutrition

Have you ever wondered, what is the relationship between stress and our digestive system?

The brain has a much closer connection to the stomach, than it does with any other organ. This connection goes both ways, meaning that any issue with our stomach can be both triggered by stress AND be the cause of stress.

The nervous system is in constant communication with our gut. Once it senses that food has entered the stomach, the neurons lining the digestive tract will signal the digestive muscles to start simulating contractions that move food throughout the system, breaking it down into its nutritional components along the way.

This close connection between brain and gut means that many factors can then affect and compromise digestion.


Let's have a look at these factors.


PERCEIVED STRESS Mental / Emotional Anxiety / Depression


GLYCEMIC DYSREGULATION Low fiber intake High Glycemic Index Foods

Insuline resistance Obesity


CIRCADIAN DISRUPTION Sleep Issues Light / Dark disruption


INFLAMMATORY SIGNALS Infections Allergies Cardiovascular diseases


High levels of stress hormones are responsible for shutting down blood flow and decreasing digestive secretions. This slows down our metabolism or even stops it entirely. Our body does what it has been trained to do for centuries: it turns all the energy towards defending itself against the perceived threat.


We've all experienced one or more side effects of chronic stress at some point of our lives. These may have shown up in the form of:

  1. Abdominal pain

  2. Constipation

  3. Inflammation (acid reflux, mouth ulcers and sores)

  4. Diarrhoea / vomiting

  5. Changes to the composition of microbes within the digestive system

  6. Gas and bloating

  7. Over / under eating patterns

A note on the sleep / stress / exercise triad

There is a connection between sleep and how we metabolise food, which in turn affects the nutrient bioavailability of our food. Our circadian rhythm, the 24- hour cycle that our body follows each day, is regulated, in part, by our diet and food choices. Ghrelin and leptin are two hormones that regulate appetite and can be greatly influenced by sleep. Moreover, sleep deprivation can increase cortisol levels by over 100%, which in turn, can make you gain weight. If then stress impacts our sleep, it will also have a knock-on effect on our nutrition and how we metabolise foods.


So what can we do if stress if negatively impacting our gut health?

While there is still very little research and evidence to support how specific foods can help manage stress levels, it is widely accepted that a balanced and nutritious diet can be extremely beneficial specifically during stressful times. Let's take a look at the nutrients that are depleted by stress:

IRON

MAGNESIUM

B VITAMINS

VITAMIN C


All of these nutrients are contained in a fiber rich diet (fruit, vegetables, grains, pulses). Unfortunately, supplementing these nutrients won't change our stress levels unless we manage it in other ways.


Foods that may help support your body during stressful times:

1. Amino Acids, building blocks of protein. When it comes to stress, 3 amino acids are the ones that really matter: tyrosine theanine tryptophan Oats, green tea, eggs, fatty fish, tofu, lentils, pumpkin seeds


2. Essential fatty acids are absolutely crucial when it comes to helping our body absorb nutrients, produce hormones and maintain healthy nerve functioning. (Omega-3) Mackerel, salmon, flaxseed oil, chia seeds, walnuts, soybeans.


3. Magnesium is one of the main nutrients that gets depleted in times of stress, which can definitely exacerbate symptoms. Leafy green veg, bananas, cashews, dark chocolate, quinoa, avocados.


4. B vitamins are extremely important for supporting your energy levels so, if you’re feeling a bit fatigued, increasing your intake of these could really help. There are eight essential B vitamins and each performs a range of important functions, especially when it comes to your mood! Vitamin B6, for example, helps your body to produce valuable mood- boosting neurotransmitters like serotonin. Brown rice, millet, almonds, broccoli, red meat, spinach, sunflower seeds.


5. Studies (small trial study) have found that taking vitamin C, even if you aren’t deficient, may improve anxiety levels. It should go without saying that vitamin C is just one of the most important nutrients for your body overall: it’s pivotal for your immune system, skin, muscles and joints. Spinach, oranges, bell peppers, blueberries, blackberries, tomatoes.


Practices that may help reduce your stress levels and support your gut health
  1. Practice some kind of stress reduction technique regularly, one that resonates and you enjoy.

  2. Avoid eating food if in a stressed state. Complete a deep breathing exercise for 2-3 minutes to enable the mind/body connection to begin the digestive process.

  3. Avoid eating while distracted- eating at your desk, watching TV etc as this may also impact on effective digestion of nutrients.

  4. Digestion begins in the mouth so chew your food well .

  5. Drink plenty of water apart from your meals – Drinking plenty of water every day is crucial for your mood and your digestive system!

  6. Cope with your emotions with kindness with your emotions. Food ultimately won't solve your problems, we need to figure out the source.

  7. Avoid having your food on-the-go – If you’re constantly rushing your meals then this can have a negative impact on your digestive system, leading to symptoms such as bloating, indigestion and flatulence. It can also affect how you absorb certain nutrients so don’t be afraid to spend some time with your food.

What if, conversely, food is a source of stress for you?

I highly would recommend speaking with someone about it, whether it's your doctor, a nutritionist or someone you can trust. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch.





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