It’s time for yet another chat about one of my favourite topics….. digestion! Are you surprised? Probably not. But if you want some nutrition geekery this morning, I’m about to deliver.
Food intolerances, allergies and gut health – they’re all hot topics these days. Have you ever suspected that you’re sensitive to things like gluten, dairy, soy, or anything else you were eating at the time? Was eliminating those foods and/or ingredients the first course of action you took?
If you truly were sensitive or allergic to these things, ideally eliminating them would have reduced your symptoms – bloating, gas, digestive discomfort, skin irritation, fatigue, headaches, heartburn, brain fog etc – none of which are fun things! But what if it didn’t, or if the relief was only temporary?
When food IS the root cause
Back in my early 20s, allergy tests suggested that I should avoid gluten and dairy – not because I’m allergic, but because I’m sensitive and showed inflammation when exposed to those things. I’ve adhered to this ever since with great success, and to be honest, don’t find it at all restrictive. With that said, I think we’ve become really quick to assume that these popular allergens should be eliminated at the first signs of digestive issues – all before taking a look at what other foods we’re eating.
You probably know the suspects I’m talking about, and I’ve written about these in depth in my Anti-Inflammatory Eating 101 Guide. Sugary, highly processed, packaged foods, those containing chemicals and artificial sweeteners, and those with mile-long ingredient lists – all of which can trigger inflammation, compromising the digestive system (among other systems) and creating conditions like leaky gut syndrome.
In a nutshell, leaky gut is a condition where the tight junctions along the lining of the intestines break apart, allowing what the body views as foreign food particles to pass through. The tight junctions are like gut-guarding soldiers. They should stand shoulder to shoulder, letting in only what they decide is ok. But when they keep getting bombarded with particles they decide are toxic (even ones that were ok in the past), the gaps start to widen.
With more foreign food particles passing through, antibodies are produced as part of an autoimmune inflammatory response. The damaged cells in the intestines can’t produce the enzymes needed for proper digestion, and the body can’t absorb what it needs from the food we eat. All this makes digestion an uncomfortable experience, and has a cascading effect on our mood, energy, sex drive, and a whole bunch of other seemingly unrelated things.
Getting tested for food sensitivities + allergies
Of course, leaky gut is just one of many types of gut-related condition. There are plenty of others – irritable bowel disease, celiac disease, Chron’s, and small intestinal bacteria overgrowth (SIBO) are just a few. As science evolves, tests are also becoming more available and reliable. They can get expensive, but I’m all for testing if it helps us move towards better health.
If you’re looking to have this done, a great route to go is via a functional medicine practitioner who may be able to offer alternative solutions to what is suggested by general practitioners. A Google search for functional medicine doctors in your area is a good place to start, as well as the Institute for Functional Medicine. If this topic is of interest to you, I also recommend checking out this podcast and article about how to find a trusted functional medicine doctor.
What if it’s not what you’re eating, but the state you’re in while eating?
Gut health is still an evolving area of science so there’s a lot of misdiagnosis, un-diagnosis, and (in my opinion) unnecessary elimination of foods that aren’t the real source of the problem. We can give up gluten, dairy, soy, sugar, legumes, grains, lectins, nightshades etc etc etc…. all of which might work, but often it’s other lifestyle factors – especially non-food forms of stress – that are heavy contributors.1 In fact, some studies show prolonged exposure to stress can make food allergies and sensitivities worse.2
Stress, the nervous system and the gut
If you think back to grade 8 biology, you may remember that the nervous system has 2 branches – the sympathetic and parasympathetic. The parasympathetic nervous system kicks in to bring our bodies down to a state of calm and normalcy3. It’s the ‘feed and breed’ branch – the one that regulates sex drive, allows us to digest food properly, and reduces blood pressure and heart rate after they’ve been above normal. In a nutshell, it’s the chilled out branch.
Over to the other branch, the sympathetic nervous system is activated when you’re in fight-or-flight mode – sprinting, mid-HIIT workout, running from a bear, terrified…. in other words, under stress. In this state, the adrenals produce more cortisol, a stress hormone.
Cortisol aims to manage inflammation by suppressing the immune system, and in doing so, increases blood sugar.4 (That’s why cortisol also comes into conversations about stress and weight gain. See the correlation?) Chronic stress and this ongoing cortisol spike cycle can develop into what’s now referred to as HPA axis dysfunction, and one of the side effects is a weakened gut.5
Cortisol aside, our bodies also rely on a bunch of other hormones that regulate mood – several of which are produced in the gut. So, if too much cortisol hinders the gut’s ability to make those happy hormones, and makes it harder for those intestinal cells to produce the right enzymes for proper digestion, it makes sense that trying to eat in a stressed-out state isn’t going to go well, right?
Take a chill pill
By now I’m sure you’d agree that eliminating foods will only get us so far. A diet rich in unprocessed, whole foods is the essential foundation, but no matter what we eat, it’s not going to be received well if the body can’t absorb and digest it. Inhaling a meal in a state of stress is more likely to result in shorter-term side effects like heartburn, bloating, gas and indigestion, and the long-term impact isn’t pleasant either.
So. We need to chill out.
If you’ve been struggling with digestive issues that don’t seem to be getting any better, no matter how many foods you eliminate or expensive supplements you try, the good news is that an alternative fix isn’t going to cost you anything.
Eating in a blissed-out, totally relaxed, zen-like state may sound impractical and near impossible on some days, but here’s 5 easy, totally manageable practices you can get into that can help. They’ve certainly been working for me, especially on days when work is nuts – which feels like every day right now!
1. 3 deep breaths
Before you eat a meal, take 3 breaths, as big as you possibly can, in through the nose and out through the mouth. This helps to slow the heart rate down, and that increased oxygen tank should make you feel a little refreshing energy boost too.
2. Box breathe while driving home from work
Breathe in for 4, hold for 4, out for 4, hold for 4, repeat. I do this on the way to work as a way of meditating before the day starts, but have recently started doing it on my way home to calm down before I eat dinner.
3. Eat with somebody else
In an ideal world where time is unlimited, we’d all chew our bites 20 times and set our cutlery down in between bites. That’s not always doable when you’re running between meetings, but at least by eating with another person, you’ll be more likely to slow down more than you would if eating alone. Social connection is also great for reducing stress too!
4. Go for a walk or do something lightly active after a meal
Sitting for long periods or going to bed very shortly after eating doesn’t do the digestion process many favours. Instead, do some light movement – stand up to wash dishes, tidy up the kitchen post-meal, or actually go for a walk outside. Resist the urge to lie down!
5. Enjoy a cup of herbal tea
Non-caffeinated teas containing peppermint, ginger, dandelion, licorice and slippery elm are all herbs that support digestion. Some, like peppermint soothe and relax the stomach muscles, while others support detoxification of the liver. You also can’t chug tea (unless you want to burn yourself), so drinking it should help you slow down. As a third benefit, warm liquids are also much more soothing than cold ones, which the body needs to use energy to warm up.
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- Maintaining healthy habits during stressful times
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- Stress release smoothie
- Prebiotics vs probiotics: best sources and why they matter for a healthy gut