Stress-Belly Connection: How Your Stress Could Be Making You Bloated
written by Rebekah Fedrowitz
You know that pit in your stomach you got when you realized you were late to a meeting? Or the worry that filled your head when your child got sick? Or the rush of blood you felt when you narrowly escaped a car accident?
You know those things? Those things could be to blame for your bloating.
What is stress?
It sort of seems silly to define something as well-known as stress, but our individual perceptions of stress can distort the real definition.
Biochemically speaking, stress is a reaction in the body that causes a disruption to the normal function of the body’s systems.
Seems simple enough, right?
It is, but there is still something that has to be accounted for and that’s the severity of stress and the subsequent effects on the body.
For example, something as small as temporarily thinking you lost one of your favorite earrings may not outwardly be considered stress, but there was undoubtedly an internal reaction.
Of course an emergency like running away from a wild animal would elicit a stronger and more severe physical response, but a stress reaction takes place in both situations.
How does the body respond to stress?
When we are under stress, our bodies respond by increasing the release of certain hormones and inhibiting the release of other hormones.
Hormones play a critical role in much of our body, so the domino effect to the stress-induced hormone changes can be quite significant.
Depending on the intensity of the stressful situation, you may or may not physically feel any reaction. If it’s an intense situation, you may feel increased energy, quicker breathing, butterflies in the stomach, or a rush of blood throughout the body. This will likely be followed by a moderate crash as you recuperate from the response. For less dramatic events, you may notice nothing more than slight tension.
Regardless of what you feel happening, the change in hormones is still taking place to some varying degree.
One of the main areas impacted by these hormonal changes is digestion.
During both high and low stress events, the release of the stress hormone, cortisol, reduces digestive function in order to redirect energy elsewhere.
Undigested foods cause gas and bloating in the short-term, but it can also lead to malnutrition, leaky gut, and other digestive-related issues down the road.
How can I help my bloating?
Reducing your stress is a great start to recovery from any health issue, including unpleasant bloating and stomach problems.
That said, there are some stressors that are not easily reduced so you have to combat the stress in other ways.
Finding good stress management and coping techniques can help with the psychological effects of stress. Creating a good diet can help with the physical and internal impacts of stress.
What is a good diet to help with stress?
While there is no perfect answer to the perfect diet, we can all start structuring our diet around whole, unprocessed, and preferable organic foods. This kind of eating should always be your foundation.
However, during stress, a clean diet is more important than ever because unnecessary toxins, preservatives, and malnutrition can add undue strain on an already over-burdened body.
Focus on creating a well-balanced diet with ample healthy fats, complete proteins, and unrefined carbohydrates.
Here are some specific guidelines for foods you should choose and foods you should avoid:
- Healthy fats
Sources: olive oil, coconut oil, grass-fed butter, avocado, soaked and sprouted nuts and seeds.
Servings: 4 to 8 servings per day. Don’t skim on fats!
(Serving size is about 1 tbsp oil or 1 oz nuts)
Sources: focus on fibrous vegetables, such as leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, zucchini, cabbage, bell pepper, or beets
Servings: 5 to 8 servings per day
Sources: organic chicken, grass-fed beef, wild-caught cold water fishes
Servings: 3 to 5 servings per day
Drink half your body weight in ounces, plus more for exercise, exposure to heat, and caffeine and alcohol.
- High-Quality Salt
Salt and sodium has a negative reputation because of the misuse in poor quality table salt. When we are under stress, we need higher levels of salts and mineral, which we can get from a high quality Himalayan crystal or sea salt that mimics the mineral balance of blood.
Season food liberally to help recuperate some of the minerals and electrolytes lost during periods of stress. Salt is also necessary for adequate stomach acid, which can often be depleted by increased cortisol.
Are there foods I should avoid during stress?
It goes without saying that “junk” food should always be avoided.
Junk food really means food that is full of chemicals, additives, added sugars, food colorings, and other ingredients that are taxing and burdensome on the body.
While a body not under stress can typically mitigate the effects of a small amount of junk food, a body under stress shouldn’t have the added strain.
Also, some normally healthy foods can be harder to digest with reduced digestive function due to the stress hormones
For example, raw foods, beans, grains, and nuts can be associated with stomach aches and bloating for some people and that can be especially true during times of stress. To help aid in digestion, avoid high amounts of these foods or soak and sprout them for easier digestion.
Other key foods to reduce or avoid during stress include:
Caffeine has a similar response as stress so it’s a bit of a double-whammy on the body. Keep caffeine to about one cup of coffee per day, and consider replacing it with something like green tea for a lower caffeine intake.
- Sugar & Refined Carbohydrates
Sugar and refined carbohydrates can add stress to the body, so they should be avoided at all costs. Of course these are the times we crave it most, so eating a balanced diet can help keep blood sugar regulated and prevent cravings for sugar and simple carbohydrates.
Happy hour isn’t so happy during stress because the moment of calm and relaxation ends with increased cortisol levels, oxidative stress, and erratic sleep. Avoid drinking daily and having more than one drink in a single setting.
What if I’m still bloated?
If you’re still bloated, there may be other issues to consider, especially if stress has been around for a while. One key connection to bloating is adequate stomach acid levels, which are commonly associated with feelings of heart burn or indigestion.
Stress can impact stomach acid levels and we typically assume any indigestion or bloating symptoms to be related to high stomach acid, but low stomach acid is often the real issue.
The symptoms for high and low stomach acid are extremely similar and both can lead to abdominal bloating and discomfort. Working with a qualified health professional can help determine whether the issue is related to high or low stomach acid.
Stress can really take its toll on digestion and eventually that can lead to some issues which require a more specific protocol to recover from.
In addition to disrupted stomach acid levels, this can include food sensitivities, candida overgrowth, bacteria overgrowth, or digestive enzyme imbalance, to name a few.
It’s important to work with a qualified health professional who can guide you through discovering the root issues and addressing them specifically.
In the society we live in, it’s nearly impossible to avoid stress, but it isn’t impossible to combat it.
Start by managing your stress so it doesn’t manage you. Support your body’s increased demands with foods that help during those times of stress.
Create a balanced diet that is full of nourishing foods and avoid foods that only add to the effects of stress.
Chew your foods well, eat slowly, and relax during meal time to aid in digestion for increase nutrient assimilation, reduced bloating, and improved enjoyment of food!
About the Author
Rebekah Fedrowitz is a board certified holistic nutritionist and the founder of You Are Well (www.youarewellhealth.com).
Rebekah believes that nutrition is an important part of the body’s healing process and that healing food should not be bland and restrictive but enjoyable and inspired.
Rebekah completed her master’s diploma in nutrition from the Edison Institute of Nutrition, is Board Certified in Holistic Nutrition, and is a professional member of the National Association of Nutrition Professionals.