Maybe you’ve heard the phrase “a pit in your stomach” as a way to describe that sinking feeling you get when you’re stressed out. But did you know that pit in your stomach is an actual biological response to the stress you’re experiencing? That’s because there’s a connection between your brain and your gut — in fact, some scientists refer to the gut as “the second brain.”
So how does stress impact the biological drive of hunger, and what stress-reducing techniques can have an impact on your hunger and digestion? Here’s what to know.
Stress and Eating
Quick refresher: Stress is a result of your body’s fight-or-flight response, which activates when you perceive yourself to be in danger. The fight-or-flight response triggers physiological changes within your body, including faster respiration, increased blood flow to muscles and lungs, decreased hunger levels, and slowed digestion.
Most episodes of stress are acute and short-lasting, so the effects of stress on eating and digestion aren’t overly harmful. However, if the stress is long-lasting or chronic, you can experience issues like irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, diarrhea, indigestion, or an
upset stomach. Similarly, gastrointestinal distress can worsen any stress you’re already experiencing.
Stress can also impact your eating habits and your hunger levels. You might experience a suppressed appetite during episodes of acute stress. However, if the stress continues, your adrenal glands release cortisol (the stress hormone), which can increase appetite and the desire to eat. The increase in cortisol can also lead to bigger spikes in blood sugar; in fact, stress can be a major cause of hyperglycemia (aka high blood sugar) in people with diabetes). Many people are also driven to ignore their appetite cues when stressed and fill up on comforting, emotionally-associated foods. There’s a biological reason behind that too: During times of stress, our brain requires more energy — and the simplest way to deliver that energy quickly? Sugar and carbs.
How to Practice Mindful Eating
Managing your stress levels — in and out of the kitchen — is essential to regular digestion and weight management. However, one simple practice can help you lower your stress and enjoy a healthful, relaxing meal.
Mindful eating simply means focusing on being present during your meal by noticing everything your senses are taking in. For example, you might notice the colors of your salad, the texture of your whole-grain bread, the smell of your salmon, and of course, the taste of every bite as it lands on your tongue. Mindful eating also means blocking out other distractions during your meal (yes, that means put your phone away) to truly focus on staying present.
In general, mindfulness has been shown to lead to lower levels of cortisol, as well as a lower blood pressure, heart rate and stress levels. When practiced intentionally, mindful eating has several benefits. Mindful eating can help you learn your body’s hunger cues and curb food cravings. Mindful eating can also help you resist emotional eating or binge eating, since you’re more attuned to your body’s physical needs. Physiologically, mindful eating may lower the ratio of triglycerides to HDL (good) cholesterol, which reduces the risk of heart disease.
While stress is a normal thing to experience, there are measures you can take to make sure your stress levels don’t negatively impact your digestion and nutrition. Start by practicing mindful eating at your meals. Then, dive deeper into personalized stress management, nutrition, and lifestyle advice from a personalized medicine doctor. We use data-driven strategies based on your own unique test results to create an actionable plan for your health goals. Start today by signing up to receive precision medicine tips straight to your phone.