Our bodies break down nutrients we get from our diets into carbohydrates, protein, fats and vitamins, explains the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. One reason you might not be able to digest your food is due to feelings of stress and anxiety, explains Dr Kimberley Wilson.
“What happens when you’re in the state of stress is your blood supply moves away from your gut and into your extremities, so essentially digestion stops,” said the chartered psychologist Dr Kimberley Wilson during an event raising awareness on the link between mental health and food called Merry Moments.
The event was brought by a partnership of the Italian food chain Zizzi and Mental Health Foundation.
Dr Kimberley was one of the expert guests shedding light on food and mood. She explained that stress and anxiety can stop your digestion because of the state your body finds itself in.
She said: “It’s the reason we tend to not feel hungry when we’re running for the bus or running away from something.
“Your body says, well, this is the emergency you can eat later. We need you to survive first.”
The doctor described this state as a “flight and fight” mode, during which there’s no digestion happening because of the stress and anxiety we experience.
Dr Wilson explained exactly what happens in your body during this time. She said: “Your body perceives anxiety as a threat signal and your body’s main way of keeping you safe is switching into this sympathetic nervous system activation.
“That means the release of cortisol – stress hormone – into your bloodstream.
“One of its main jobs is to release glucose into your bloodstream to feed your brain because it is churning through lots of activity.”
The doctor added: “Your blood pressure goes up, your heart rate goes up, all of that is to provide nutrients and oxygen to your extremities and your brain.”
The problem is we only have a certain amount of blood in our bodies. So, to conduct the process the doctor described, your blood gets redirected from your gut, causing your digestion to stop.
She added: “What needs to happen is that your brain-body kind of complex needs to get the message that there is no threat or the threat has gone to redirect that blood back to the gastrointestinal tract so that digestion can happen.”
When you have food, you need to be in the opposite state of this “flight and fight” mode called “the rest and digest” mode.
Dr Wilson described this: “It’s a different physiological state and it’s the kind of homeostatic calm state that your body needs to be in to digest.”
The Merry Moments’ expert explained that “it’s a bad idea” to do stressful activities while eating like checking your work emails during your lunch break.
She noted: “Even if you only have 10 minutes to take your lunch break, take those 10 minutes and use it for your lunch break, not to multitask.
“Take a few deep mindful breaths, slow exhalation breaths help to calm down your system and prepare your body for a really important task which is digestion.”
However, stress and anxiety are not the only reason that might be causing your digestion issues. There can also be a health complication causing this.
Dr Wilson explained you need to understand what’s causing the problems first. She said: “Sometimes it’s a physiological thing, there might be sensitivities around certain foods and that sort of stuff.
“First thing would be you need to have a proper assessment of what’s causing difficulty with digestion.
“But, more generally, for pretty much everyone it’s a good idea to not be in an activated sympathetic [flight and fight] state when you sit down to eat.”
Dr Wilson concluded: “It’s not just what you’re eating or how you’re eating but what kind of mental or physiological state is your body in when you’re trying to eat.”