Let’s go back to basics and talk about the fight-or-flight stress response. Imagine: you’re a caveperson, and you’re out foraging for blackberries, and then you see a bear! He’s also foraging for berries!
Here is what happens in your body:
- Heart Rate goes up
- Blood Pressure goes up
- Blood goes to your arms for fighting
- Blood goes to your legs for fleeing
- Blood goes to your brain for quick thinking
What that means is, blood goes away from your digestive system.
Here is your gut in a fight or flight response:
- 4x less blood to the gut
- Dramatic decrease in oxygen to the gut
- Enzymatic activity down 20,000fold
- Gut bacteria killed off
- Body excretes nutrients
- Water-soluble vitamins (like B and C) excreted through urine and sweat
- Fat-soluble vitamins (like A, D, and E) malabsorbed at best, shed through bowel movements at worst
- Calcium and other minerals leeched from the bones
- Decreased production of thyroid hormones and growth hormones (which are responsible for revving up the metabolic rate of every cell in the body)
- Increased inflammation in almost every bodily tissue (leads to chronic disease)
- Increased production of cortisol and insulin
- Cortisol changes your perception of time, makes you think time is running out, which it is if you’re being chased by a bear
- When cortisol and insulin are artificially elevated it signals your body to store weight, store fat, and not build muscle
Sounds like an appropriate response to a bear chasing you, right?
And none of this is new material, you can find study after study documenting the stress response, or sympathetic nervous system dominance. A switch flips in your body that triggers this response to ensure your survival.
You may say to me or to yourself, yes, Kathryn, this is excellent information, but I’m not being chased by a bear.
True. You’re not. If you’re reading this internet blog, it means that your life is probably not hanging in the balance in this exact moment.
But you do have other stress: work, school, relationships, deadlines, traffic jams, money, car trouble, roof leaking, pet peed inside the house, child is screaming, flight delays, people are stupid, negative news stories, no wifi connection, overslept, my ear hurts weirdly, what am I going to eat for dinner?, etc.
If you think that you might react differently to those stressors compared to a bear chasing you, I’m here to tell you that your body reacts the exact same way.
Whenever you are in a stress response, your body switches to sympathetic nervous system dominance and reacts the way I outlined above.
So imagine you’re in a stress response, even a low-level response, and you decide to eat food. What do you think your body is going to do with that meal?
Store it or get rid of it. That’s what’s going to happen.
It will not digest effectively, it won’t assimilate the nutrients of the meal, it won’t burn calories, it won’t build new muscle. Your body is focused on your survival; it does not care about your digestion.
You can eat the healthiest meal in the entire world, chockablock full of superfoods, vitamins, and minerals, and if you eat it in a state of stress, it doesn’t matter. You won’t digest it or assimilate the nutrients.
This is where I start with clients when they come to work with me: stress and its impact on your digestion. I’m hoping to appeal to your logic and get you to buy in to the intelligence of a stress-free food experience.
But what I’m really interested in are the deeper, more unconscious sources of stress. That’s the stuff I write about: all these patterns that are stressing you out and changing the way you live your life.
Food is useful because it’s a place you come back to, many times per day. It’s a place to declare a cease-fire on your body and your choices, if for no other reason than to optimize your digestion. It gives you a home base for this practice of self-love and nourishment, and affords you some opportunity to explore what comes up when you’re explicitly pro-yourself and an advocate for your own choices.
And in the meantime, you can start to explore all the other stuff, once your body knows that all the emotions have a safe place to land.