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Navigating Gut Health During Stressful Times

If you are an adult reading this, then you likely have experienced stress at some point in your life. There is the stress that is all-consuming where you’re practically frozen in your tracks with overwhelm, or perhaps it is the ominous lingering kind that drifts in and out. Regardless of the way in which it manifests, stress undoubtedly wreaks havoc on your gut. Bloating, diarrhea and constipation in particular are exacerbated by stress, and then in turn the symptoms create more stress in a vicious cycle! So are we all doomed forever since stress is pretty much inevitable? 


Of course not….Below are some stress survival strategies that can also work to protect the gut:


  • Eat a variety of colorful foods : Whole foods rich in natural color provide the body with vitamins and nutrients that offer protection against external sources which includes stress. These micronutrients support the body’s ability to stave off infection, reduce inflammation, and ultimately create  an environment that can better manage stress. While raw fruits and vegetables may be a challenge for some people to digest when struggling with uncomfortable gut symptoms, , we strongly recommend still incorporating these foods via cooking (baking, sauteing, boiling), pureeing, or blending for more comfortable digestion.

  • Practice Breathwork: For some, deep breathing into that yoga lunge does the trick. For others, the thought of rolling out a yoga mat only deepens an anxious mind and gut.  Yoga is often portrayed as the coveted method of peaceful movement of your body into a more relaxed state… mainly because it works! However, it’s definitely not the only approach. Right before meals, deep breathing, box breathing, and the 4-7-8 breathing technique can work wonders to help your body reach the rest and digest mode – without ever having to leave the comfort of your chair! This is important so your body appropriately prepares gastric juices and enzymes to help aid in the digestion process.
      1. 4-7-8: Close your lips and inhale through your nose for a count of four. Hold your breath for a count of seven. Exhale completely through your mouth making a whoosh sound for a count of eight. This completes one cycle. Medical News Today
  • Box Breathing: Close your eyes. Breathe in through your nose while counting to four slowly. Feel the air enter your lungs. Hold your breath inside while counting slowly to four. Try not to clamp your mouth or nose shut. Simply avoid inhaling or exhaling for 4 seconds. Begin to slowly exhale for 4 seconds. Repeat steps 1 to 3 at least three times. Ideally, repeat the three steps for 4 minutes, or until calm returns. Medical News Today

  • Chew foods to apple sauce consistency: Saliva from chewing contains the first digestive enzymes that will target your food. In fact, your mouth is the only place where food is broken down mechanically. The act of chewing sends a signal to the rest of the gastrointestinal system. This cascade of events leads to the relaxation of the lower stomach muscles while the pancreas produces enzymes and bicarbonate. Ultimately, undigested pieces of food may also serve as a food source for bacteria in the colon, leading to unwanted bacterial overgrowth and flatulence. This is relevant to stress because when we are feeling anxious we tend to “inhale” our food in just a few bites, skipping the initial mechanical parts of digestion. Being intentional about chewing can help during extra stressful times so that you protect your gut from avoidable symptoms.
  • Sleep comes up a lot, but that’s because it really is that important. When you are stressed, it is no secret that sleep is typically the first to go out the door. Here are some additional tips to prep for shut-eye even when your mind may be racing:
  1. Create a cool dark room. This creates the prime sleeping environment for you to catch some ZZZ’s.
  2. If you live in a big city with lots of noise pollution, it may be time to invest in ear plugs and an eye mask: Sleep Masks , Ear Plugs…You may not realize you are getting jolted awake each morning with the sounds of traffic or horns blaring. When falling asleep, it also creates the perfect peaceful and quiet ambiance.
  3. Try swapping your nightly TV show to an excellent book….I know, this recommendation is not going to be the class favorite. However, the light from the television can stimulate your senses and block the needed melatonin production, keeping you awake unnecessarily. Find a book genre that resonates with you, and you’ll be shocked at how quickly this will soothe you into a deep slumber!
  4. Epsom salt baths don’t just alleviate a distressed stomach directly, they also relax the entire body before bed. Make it fun: light a candle, play some relaxing  music, and create an ambiance that just draws your head to the pillow. Teal’s makes the most perfect lavender epsom salt, or if you prefer, you can use the ancient minerals magnesium flakes and add a few drops of lavender essential oil. Lavender is soothing for the senses and also naturally relaxes the body; lavender plus epsom salt together is a true power couple. You can buy some here: Lavender Epsom Salt
  5. Keep a notepad by your bed for a racing mind. Sometimes people are kept awake because they are subconsciously running through their to-do list without even realizing it. You may be fearful to fall asleep because you’ll forget about the task you just thought of, or the appointment you missed adding to your google calendar. By having a notepad and pen resting by your bed, you can quickly jot down these nagging thoughts and then rest more peacefully once you know that your mind doesn’t have to remember them all night. This technique really works and can be done anywhere, and may even become an ingrained long-term habit.


Overall, it is not IF we will encounter stress, it is WHEN. Life is all about how to navigate it, and having some defined strategies in your back-pocket can help protect your gut, calm the mind, and enable you to tackle challenges head-on!


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Hi, I’m Dr. Heather

Registered dietitian and helps people struggling with bloating, constipation, and IBS find relief from their symptoms and feel excited about food again.

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