In this interview, Marc David, an expert in the psychology of eating, talks about the important role stress plays in digestion.
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This video clip of my Inner Circle expert interview with Marc David exposes the tremendous impact stress can have on your digestion, and in turn your weight and overall health.
Marc is the founder and director of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, and has written two excellent books on this topic: The Slow Down Diet: Eating for Pleasure, Energy, and Weight Loss, and Nourishing Wisdom: A Mind-Body Approach to Nutrition and Well-Being.
The fact is, you can't separate your wellness from your emotions. Every feeling you have affects some part of your body. And stress can wreak havoc even if you’re doing everything else “right.”
What is “Stress”?
The classic definition of stress is “any real or imagined threat, and your body’s response to it.” Celebrations and tragedies alike can cause a stress response in your body.
Some stress is unavoidable. Some mild forms of stress can even be helpful in some situations. But a stressor becomes a problem when:
- Your response to it is negative.
- Your feelings and emotions are inappropriate for the circumstances.
- Your response lasts an excessively long time.
- You’re feeling continuously overwhelmed, overpowered or overworked.
It’s important to realize that all your feelings create physiological changes. Your skin, heart rate, digestion, joints, muscle energy levels, the hair on your head, and countless cells and systems you don't even know about change with every emotion.
Marc notes that Americans, in general, tend to eat under a state of stress and anxiety.
While under stress, your heart rate goes up, your blood pressure rises, and blood is shunted away from your midsection, going to your arms, legs, and head for quick thinking, fighting, or fleeing.
All of these changes are referred to as the physiological stress response.
Under those circumstances, your digestion completely shuts down. So a major problem with eating while your body is under the stress response is that you could be eating the healthiest food in the world, yet you won’t be able to fully digest and assimilate that food, and your body will not be able to burn calories effectively.
How the Stress Response Affects Your Digestion and Health
The stress response causes a number of detrimental events in your body, including:
- Decreased nutrient absorption
- Decreased oxygenation to your gut
- As much as four times less blood flow to your digestive system, which leads to decreased metabolism
- Decreased enzymatic output in your gut – as much as 20,000-fold!
Many nutrients are also excreted during stress, particularly:
- Water-soluble vitamins
- Calcium (calcium excretion can increase as much as 60 to 75 mg within an hour of a stressful event)
As if that’s not enough, your cholesterol and triglycerides also go up, while gut flora populations decrease. You’re also more likely to experience increased sensitivity to food and gastroesophageal reflux, or heartburn.
But perhaps most importantly, when your body is under the stress response, your cortisol and insulin levels rise.
These two hormones tend to track each other, and when your cortisol is consistently elevated under a chronic low-level stress response, you’ll likely notice that you have difficulty losing weight or building muscle.
Additionally, if your cortisol is chronically elevated, you’ll tend to gain weight around your midsection. We’ve known for some time that body fat, and especially visceral fat (the fat that gathers around your internal organs, around your midsection) is a major contributing factor to developing diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
The bottom line?
When you eat under stress, your body is in the opposite state of where you need to be in order to digest, assimilate nutrients, and burn calories.
Everyday Stress Relief
There’s no doubt that finding ways to relieve your everyday stress is an important, if not essential, aspect of optimizing your health. All the organics in the world can’t help you if your body can’t assimilate the nutrients you put into it.
Stress is a serious factor in the illness of nearly all of the patients seen at my clinic. Because in addition to everything mentioned above, stress also plays a major role in your immune system, and can impact your:
You cannot eliminate stress entirely, but you can work to provide your body with tools to compensate for the bioelectrical short-circuiting that can cause serious disruption in many of your body's important systems. By using techniques such as meridian tapping, you can reprogram your body’s reactions to the unavoidable stressors of everyday life.
But there are many other strategies you can employ to help you deal with stress and unwind each day, including:
- Exercise. Studies have shown that during exercise, tranquilizing chemicals (endorphins) are released in your brain. Exercise is a natural way to bring your body pleasurable relaxation and rejuvenation.
- Proper sleep
- Meditation (with or without the additional aid of brain wave synchronization technology)
I also highly recommend you read the book Feelings Buried Alive Never Die. If you’re experiencing any type of physical or emotional challenge in any aspect of your life, this book does a great job of explaining feelings: what they are, how you experience them, how they are integral to your physical health, and, most importantly, how to work with and overcome those that are pulling you down.