You know what it’s like… you are having a bad day, with work or domestic related pressures mounting, or the children running havoc. You sit down and start eating your meal but it’s a struggle to get the food down, and you end up with indigestion, bloating, reflux, or all three.

Eating while stressed is unpleasant and can lead to short-term digestive problems. But are there any more long-lasting effects? Is it a bad idea to eat while feeling stressed?

April is Stress Awareness Month so GI Doctors are sharing some information with you about the link between stress and digestion.

The link between emotions and digestion

There is a surprisingly strong link between your emotions and your ability to digest food. How stressed you feel when you eat can even influence how much fat you store.

When you realise just how big an impact your mood has on your digestive system, you might think twice before bolting down a sandwich while on hold for the bank to answer the phone during your lunch break, or eating dinner while debating the pros and cons of Brexit!

Researchers have found that the way you think about food while you are eating, can be as important as what you eat.

What happens to your digestive system when you are stressed?

When you eat the hypothalamus in your brain sends signals to your salivary glands and intestines to stimulate digestion and enable the metabolic breakdown of the food.

If you are filled with feelings of guilt as you tuck into a dessert, however, the brain sends stress signals to the autonomic nervous system, which responds by releasing cortisol into your system. This increases the heart rate and blood pressure and decreases digestive function.

The same applies if you are feeling anxious, sad, stressed or under pressure for any reason.

When digestion slows down, the contractions that push the food through the intestines also start to slow. Your body stops producing the secretions that break the food down into nutrients and waste. Consequently, the food remains for longer in your gut, which can cause abdominal pain and interfere with the bacteria in your gut. 

Slow digestive transit creates the conditions for bad bacteria to flourish. Your body is flooded with insulin and the stress hormone cortisol. It starts to hoard fat because it feels under threat.

Researchers have found that stress contributes to the build up of body fat, particularly around the abdominal region. This problem affects women more than men.

All of which adds up to a compelling argument for avoiding eating while you are stressed.

Here are some simple tips to help you enjoy calmer, quieter, more gut-friendly mealtimes:

  1. Listen to your body. What is it asking for? Eating a little of what you fancy can help you to avoid feelings of deprivation, denial and guilt, all of which can provoke the release of the stress-hormone cortisol.
  2. Learn to recognise when you are hungry and when you are full. It is easy to mistake thirst or boredom for hunger.
  3. Eat slowly and pay attention to what you are eating.
  4. Don’t eat and argue. Save the political debates until after dinner.
  5. Be kind to yourself. Try to eat a healthy diet but don’t beat yourself up if you eat “naughty” food from time to time.

Working with a specialist that can promptly diagnose and monitor your symptoms, will give you the best chance to get back to feeling your best.