In a society that often categorizes food as either “good” or “bad,” the stress associated with deciding what to eat can take a toll on our well-being, and this is where the concept of food anxiety comes to light.
For individuals with allergies or digestive disorders, who face painful or even life-threatening reactions to certain foods, this stress becomes even more challenging.
While it’s natural to seek nourishing food and avoid potential harm, excessive worry about food choices can have a more detrimental impact on our health than the food itself.
This article explores how stress affects digestion and offers guidance on overcoming food anxiety.
How Stress Affects Digestion And Causes Food Anxiety
Stress triggers the body’s natural stress response when it perceives danger, leading to a cascade of physiological changes, including hormone fluctuations and shifts in blood sugar levels.
Christine Cherpak-Castagna, Ph.D., a nutritionist and adjunct faculty member at the Maryland University of Integrative Health, explains that stress can prolong the time it takes for food to move through the digestive tract, reduce the production of digestive secretions, and slow down muscle contractions essential for digestion.
Moreover, acute stress can temporarily alter the composition of the microbiome, as noted by Marvin Singh, M.D., an integrative gastroenterologist. This means that food consumed during a stressful state may not undergo optimal digestion.
To illustrate, imagine you’ve had a substantial breakfast and encounter a stressful situation, like a traffic incident during your morning commute.
Later, you experience indigestion because your body’s stress response altered the motility of your digestive system, causing food to remain in your stomach longer than it should.
This can result in symptoms such as indigestion, bloating, nausea, heartburn, stomach pain, constipation, or diarrhea. Prolonged, chronic stress can even contribute to conditions like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
For individuals with a strained relationship with food, practicing mindful eating can be particularly beneficial.
Mindful eating encourages being present throughout all stages of eating without judgment, activating the parasympathetic nervous system, known as the “rest and digest” state, which supports optimal digestion.
Research supports the effectiveness of mindful eating in managing digestive issues.
A randomized controlled trial in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that participants who practiced mindfulness-based stress reduction experienced fewer IBS symptoms compared to a control group.
A separate study in 2011 focused on women with IBS who underwent eight weeks of mindfulness training, which yielded similar results.
Mindful eating may also help counteract the negative health effects of poor body image.
A 2022 study found that intuitive eating, a form of mindful eating, mitigates the adverse impact of internalized weight stigma on body mass index (BMI). This is significant since previous research has linked internalized weight stigma with higher BMI levels.
The study specifically examined stressed adults with poor diet quality and found that those practicing high levels of intuitive eating did not exhibit the usual association between internalized weight stigma and BMI.
Christine Cherpak-Castagna, Ph.D., authored a review in 2019 outlining the digestive benefits of various aspects of mindful eating. Here are some key takeaways to implement in your eating habits:
- Eat slowly: Slower eating allows for better food breakdown, enhances saliva’s ability to bind to food, and promotes the production of digestive enzymes.
- Meditation: Incorporate meditation to shift your nervous system into parasympathetic dominance, a state conducive to digestion.
- Listen to hunger cues: Pay attention to your body’s hunger and fullness signals to become more attuned to your body’s needs.
- Engage your senses: Use your senses to appreciate the taste, texture, smell, and appearance of food. This practice triggers the release of digestive secretions and helps you identify emotional connections to certain foods.
- Nonjudgmental awareness: Practice being nonjudgmental and allow thoughts to come and go without assigning strict labels of “good” or “bad” to foods. This can reduce the stress response.
While maintaining a healthy diet is essential, excessive preoccupation with food choices can be detrimental. Stress disrupts digestion by altering gastric emptying and affecting the gut microbiome, leading to symptoms like nausea, indigestion, heartburn, and stomach pain.
To alleviate stress, incorporate mindful eating techniques such as deep breathing, heightened sensory awareness of food, and nonjudgmental acceptance of your feelings towards food.
By building a healthier relationship with food and reducing stress, you can foster better digestion and overall well-being.