We now know how closely mental health is tied to digestive health. Stress and anxiety can be a big trigger for digestive issues. This week one of my nutrition student volunteers, Nelani Balasupramaniam, wrote a great post on dealing with stress through mindful eating. These tips can help improve your digestion, mental health and overall wellbeing.
Life is hard. There seems to be a never-ending list of things to do in what feels like an impossibly short amount of time. With all these things to do, the stress can sometimes feel overwhelming. Stress can take its toll on anyone, and for those with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), stress can exacerbate the symptoms. This blog post is all about dealing with stress through mindful eating. If you are struggling with significant anxiety or other mental health challenges, please seek the help of a trained professional, such as your family doctor or a psychologist.
Stress & IBS
Let’s start off with understanding the science behind stress. When stress occurs, whether good or bad, this sensation activates two major pathways in a person’s body called the pituitary adrenal axis and the autonomic nervous system.1 The pituitary adrenal axis is responsible for stimulating the production of stress-regulating hormones called glucocorticoids (more commonly cortisol) and the autonomic nervous system manages involuntary bodily functions like blood pressure, heart rate, and bowel functions.1 Over the years, studies have demonstrated that a peptide called corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF) and its corresponding receptors CRF1 and CRF2 (cell structures that receive a stimulus) facilitate the stress pathway to prompt a physiological response.1 In particular, the CRF1 pathway can trigger a series of effects like gut hypersensitivity, increased awareness of gut sensations, and diarrhea which are common symptoms of IBS.1
It’s amazing how closely stress and digestion are related, but what are we to do when our stress is causing indigestion? There are some ways to manage the production of these stress hormones to help alleviate the pain associated with the symptoms of IBS.
As mentioned multiple times on this blog, Irritable Bowel Syndrome does not have a cure. However, there are some lifestyle changes like mindful eating that can be beneficial to managing the symptoms of IBS brought on by stressful situations.2 Mindful eating is simply the act of being aware of the experience of eating, both inside and outside the body, “without judgement or criticism.”3 It’s about engaging all the senses—the taste, the smell, the texture— in every uninterrupted morsel of food. It’s more than just eating in silence; it’s about knowing where your food comes from and acknowledging the emotions that guide eating behaviours. Understanding this may help to identify the stressors that can lead to unhealthy food habits and irritable consequences. Incorporating this principle in conjunction with a low FODMAP diet could help manage the symptoms associated with IBS. Try these simple tips to start incorporating some mindful eating into your everyday life.
Chew Chew Chew!
The first stop in the digestive process is the mouth. Saliva in the mouth contain enzymes, like amylase and lingual lipase, that begin to break down nutrients like carbohydrates and lipids.4 Start to increase the number of times you chew before swallowing. You may have heard to chew your food “x number” of times but do what feels comfortable to you. So does this really help to increase your nutrient absorption? YES! More chewing has been shown to help increase the availability for absorption of vitamins and minerals as well as increase absorption of protein in the body.4 Give your digestive tract a break and do this step right!
As impossible as it seems, unplug from your phone, TV, and laptop for 20 minutes and take this time to focus on your food. Minimize your distractions and centre your attention on what you’re eating. Take this time to forget about your troubles and de-stress.
Identify Your Vices
This is where you ease yourself off the foods that most of us tend to gravitate towards during stressful periods. Whether your vice is devouring jumbo chocolate bars in one go or drowning your misery in a tub of Häagen-Dazs Vanilla Bean ice cream, you may want to consider how your emotions play into your food choices. Chocolate is a low FODMAP food when consumed in specific quantities but can easily drift into high FODMAP territory. For example, dark chocolate is low at 30 g.6 If you want your chocolate fix, try dipping and freezing some bananas (a low FODMAP fruit) in dark chocolate for a satisfying treat that’s gentler on the gut.6 Ice cream is a high FODMAP dessert that can cause major irritation to your digestive system.6 Try substituting ice cream for a fruit sorbet that’s made with a low FODMAP fruit like passionfruit.6 If you’re a cookie lover, make a batch of low FODMAP cookies at home and freeze extras, to avoid the temptation of Oreos in the grocery store. Be sure to check out this chart to identify your vices and some potential low FODMAP substitutes.
If it feels like you cannot control your emotional eating, please contact your doctor and/or dietitian for help.
Water you waiting for?
Having an adequate fluid intake, specifically water, is important to stay hydrated and to carry out essential bodily functions like regulating body temperature, improving digestion, removing waste, and maintaining regular bowel movements.5 Since a low FODMAP diet also incorporates appropriate levels of fiber, which can absorb fluid, it is vital to keep hydrated to prevent constipation.5 If plain water is too boring, add some lemon or mint to flavour and zest up your fluid intake!
Water doesn’t have to be the only source of your daily hydration; tea is also hydrating, plus it’s delicious. You can learn more about which teas are appropriate for the low FODMAP diet in this blog post.
We all experience stress, but what matters is how you deal with it. Mindlessly eating may boost your mood short-term, but is likely to make you feel worse later, and doesn’t address the cause of your troubles. Focusing on mindful eating can help improve both digestion and mental health; it is one simple way to improve your overall wellbeing.
Are you struggling with mindful eating or indigestion? A dietitian can help! Click to learn more about Lauren’s nutrition counselling and coaching services.
- Tache, Y. (2017, January 19). Report from Yvette Tache, PhD: Stress and Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Unraveling the Code. Retrieved from http://www.iffgd.org/research-awards/2005-award-recipients/report-from-yvette-tache-phd-stress-and-irritable-bowel-syndrome-unraveling-the-code.html
- Stewart, E.A. (2014, April). Irritable Bowel Syndrome- An Overview of Treatment Options. Retrieved from http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/040114p46.shtml
- Bays, J.C. (2009, February 5). Mindful Eating. How to really enjoy your meal. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mindful-eating/200902/mindful-eating
- Reinagel, M. (2011, August 2). How Chewing Affects Nutrition. Retrieved from http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/health-fitness/healthy-eating/how-chewing-affects-nutrition
- Dietitians of Canada. (2014, November 27). Guidelines for Drinking Fluids to Stay Hydrated. Retrieved from http://www.dietitians.ca/Your-Health/Nutrition-A-Z/Water/Why-is-water-so-important-for-my-body—Know-when-.aspx
- Monash University Low FODMAP Diet. (2012). Monash University (Version 2.0.2) [Mobile application software]. Retrieved from http://itunes.apple.com
About the Guest Author
Nelani Balasupramaniam is pursuing degree in Applied Human Nutrition at the University of Guelph. She actively looks for ways to improve health by taking a holistic approach. Nelani is passionate about learning and sharing alternative therapies to common health problems. She hopes to complete her degree and become a Registered Dietitian.