I feel like people say all the time to avoid stress because it can affect your health. It’s interesting though if you ask them how, you don’t always get a clear response. And the truth is, your health is affected by stress in multiple ways. I want to share with you a specific system of your body that is affected by stress that I find to be most common among working moms. Now remember, this is not the only way stress affects your health, but it is a concrete way that you might be able to identify with and then use this information to improve your health. First of all, what is stress?
Stress is defined as either a physical tension or pressure exerted on a material object or a state of mental or emotional tension or strain resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.
A little wordy, huh?
For our purposes, we are focusing on stress as the mental or emotional tension that can result from demanding circumstances. Simply put…That means you can experience stress in several areas of your life; your health, your relationships, your job, your finances.
I’m going to give you an example of stress and how it affects your digestive system.
In general, digestion is the process that extracts all the nutrients from our foods. Digestion is also extremely connected to how you feel every day. So if you feel stressed, your digestive system will know it. Your digestive system is often called the second brain in your body as it stores about 80% of your body’s serotonin. Serotonin is our happy, calm hormone. If you are experiencing stress, or a disruption in that happy, calm hormone, you can absolutely feel it in your gut, and vice versa, if you have gut or digestive problems, you can 100% feel it in your mood.
Three simple keys to improving your digestion are:
Chew your food
Be careful with portion sizes
Stomach acid is good a thing
Slowing down and chewing your food allows your stomach to prepare for digestion. It can produce the right amount of acid and digestive enzymes. Your body is pretty primal, so when you rush, you are telling your body that your life is in danger and you don’t have any resources available for digestion right now. Therefore, you won’t digest your food fully and miss the nutrients you needed to gain from that food.
There is a widespread epidemic of too large meal portions. Even a healthy meal in large quantities is not good for you. Your stomach is only about the size of your fist. It is hard for something that small to handle the large plate of food we sometimes put in front of it. Too much food causes bloating and potentially other digestive problems. Keep the protein or carbohydrate components of the meal to about two fists. You can then add green leafy vegetables to that and even better, add as many as you like!
Food can only be broken down into smaller components that can be used by the body through the acid produced in your stomach. So if you’re taking medications or eating a diet that suppresses stomach acid (increase the pH), I would challenge you to really evaluate your digestive health. Experiment and see how you feel after each meal. For example, animal proteins are digested at a pH of 1.9, whereas starch is digested at a pH of 2.1. If you have a diet high in animal protein and tend to feel bloated after each meal, it could simply be pH of your stomach is too high.
What are some other ways you can take action to reduce stress in general?
I would suggest one way is through meditation. People often tell me they don’t have time to meditate, but actually meditation should happen when you are your busiest. When you don’t have time, that is the time to meditate the longest. You can read more about meditation here.
A second suggestion is journaling or just call it writing if that takes the pressure off. I find that people assume journaling means you do it every day, when in fact, that doesn’t have to be the case. Simply writing can help you organize your thoughts, regulate your emotions, and give meaning to that stressful experience. We tend to associate writing with an intellectual experience, so writing how we might be feeling during a time of high emotion and stress, can help you to rationalize the experience and respond in a calmer and more reserved way.
And the final suggestion is movement. My movement of choice is yoga and I think yoga is uniquely gifted to help in times of stress. Yoga teaches you patience and movement with breath, the simple act of deep breathing. Deep breathing or belly breathing, as it is sometimes called, immediately stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system, calming the hormones stimulated during stress. Typically other forms of exercise do not initiate this response because they tend to promote shallow breathing. The focus in other forms of exercise is not the breath, the focus tends to be on the actual movement being performed.
Where do you experience stress most often in your life? Can you tell if it has affected your health? What steps can you take to decrease that stress or eliminate it altogether?