Eat slowly and breathe… or how stress affects your digestion and weight

Eating psychology coach, Sue Bradley is a guest at our upcoming Wellbeing@Work Festival, she reveals why stress can lead to weight gain and poor digestion.

eat slowly

The facts about stress on your body

Stress causes:

  • Reduced blood flow to the gut by up to 75%
  • 20,000 fold decrease in enzymatic output to gut
  • Decreased growth hormone, thyroid hormone
  • Increased insulin & cortisol
  • Die-off of healthy gut bacteria
  • Impaired mitochondrial function
  • Excretion of all minerals and water soluble vitamins
  • Decreased oxygen uptake
  • Increased inflammation and oxidative stress
  • Decreased thermic efficiency (ability to calorie burn)

Digestion and stress

Our physiological stress response is an ancient evolutionary adaptation causing our heart rate to increase, our blood pressure to rise and blood to be shunted away from our midsection. This response was originally designed to give us the strength to run away from a lion ­– but these days the same response will occur if you’re running for the bus, rushing to get to a meeting, or stuffing down a quick sandwich as you continue to work at your desk.

eating at work

You could be eating healthy food, but if your digestion shuts down, your body cannot fully digest, assimilate, and burn calories because the blood is going to your arms, legs and head for quick fighting, fleeing and thinking.

Stress is our body’s response to any type of threat, but your brain can’t tell the difference between real or imagined threat. This means the stress response can be triggered by anything from an upsetting remark made by a work colleague, or a negative thought about yourself (‘I’m so stupid…’), to seeing a unpleasant image on your phone or receiving some bad news by text whilst eating lunch. As your stress hormones rise you begin to leach vitamins and minerals from your system. You can be eating the world’s healthiest meal, but if you’re even a bit stressed, you’ve literally decreased the nutritional value of your meal.

Weight and stress

For those who are trying to lose weight, you may have something called ‘toxic dietary beliefs’, which can cause stress and lead to weight gain. If you’re having thoughts such as ‘food makes me fat’ or ‘food is my enemy’, you will be causing a cascade of chemical events, resulting in the digestive system shutting down as part of the ‘fight or flight’ survival response. Elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, day in & day out, affect your calorie burning capacity, so the body holds on to weight.

eat slowly

So what can you do? Before you focus on what to eat, teach yourself how to eat.

The slow food movement has a point…

Eating slowly makes a big difference. Take your time and think of time as a key part of your meal.

  • If you normally eat breakfast in 5 mins, bump it up to 10. If you normally take 10 mins, increase it to 15 or 20.
  • Give yourself at least 30 mins for lunch and dinner. See if you can increase it to an hour.
  • As best you can, enrol your family, co-workers and boss in creating more time and relaxation with meals.
  • Eat only sitting down. Don’t answer your phone, emails, or engage in any kind of work whilst you eat.
  • Have a slow eating contest! This can be in secret – you win if you finish last!
  • Imprint on your consciousness that fast food is out and slow food is in. It’s your new lifestyle. Try affirmations, meditation…

Every breath you take…

Conscious breathing can help de-stress the body and move it into maximum nutritional metabolism. Stress breathing is shallow and arrhythmic; relaxed breathing is deep and evenly paced. When the stress is over, you are likely to exhale with a deep sigh.

At every meal or snack, pause and ask ‘am I about to eat this under stress? If yes, take 10 long, deep, slow breaths, pausing at the top of the breath for a few seconds. (If you are in company, others will think you are listening deeply to them!). By holding the breath, your brain is fooled into thinking that your blood pressure is rising. This dilates the blood vessels, which causes an overall drop in blood pressure and hence reduces the stress response.

Breathe in more oxygen and you will burn food more fully as your metabolic ‘burning power’ is increased. This will make you a more efficient calorie-burning machine, effectively reducing the number of calories on your plate!

This video explains more on a breathing technique.

Want to find out more?

The field of Eating Psychology studies our relationship with food. What we eat is only half of the story of good nutrition – the other half is who we are as eaters.

Sue Bradley runs food education courses and programmes for those who want to change the way they eat and also for overeaters. She’ll be at SCFT’s roadshows in May as part of Wellbeing@Work Festival and hosting a lunch and learn session.

Please visit www.eatingpsychology.co.uk for more information.