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How to Fix Stress-related Indigestion and Digestive Problems

When it comes to stress-related indigestion and digestive problems, there are many potential triggers that we want to be aware of. Everything from social anxiety and eating in a hurry to forgetting to take deep breaths and chew, can contribute to digestive issues. I began my health journey suffering through these scenarios and I know

Fact checked by Nattha Wannissorn

Know that you’re not alone and that there are many ways you can take back control of your digestive functions! In this article, we’ll break down the most common ways that stress interferes with strong and healthy digestion. Then, we’ll provide some easy and actionable tips to return your digestion and nervous system to balance. We’ll also answer some of the most common questions you may have about these topics. Let’s dive in!

How stress and anxiety influence digestion

Woman sit down with hands over her hurting belly

Anyone who’s experienced stress and mood issues knows that our mental state has a profound impact on our body. This interaction is referred to as the brain-gut axis and it constantly sends and receives messages to and from the digestive system and brain. 

If you’ve ever wondered what anxiety stomach pain feels like, just remember the first time you faced a nerve-wracking situation. The first time you went on a big roller coaster and felt yourself pulled further and further up the big hill. Or the time you had to give a presentation in front of your class at school and were super nervous about it. That feeling of butterflies in the stomach, like you have a big empty pit where your belly used to be – that’s anxiety.

Anxiety tends to be the label we give to feelings we believe to be negative but the sensation is nearly identical to excitement. Reframing “situations that make me anxious” to “situations that excite my nervous system” can help lower stress and hence, support digestion.

How to improve stress-related digestion naturally at home: taking a holistic approach

“From a traditional Chinese medicine perspective, the stomach (and its partner, the spleen) is most affected by chronic worry, anxiety, and overthinking.” This approach shows a strong correlation with what I see clinically and can help illuminate the roots of digestive issues. It reminds us that we’ve got to metabolize our emotional experiences the same as we do our food and drink.

Journaling and reframing

Woman journaling in a balcony

One way to start doing this is by journaling out your feelings or negative thoughts that are persistent in your mind. You can also find a friend or practitioner to share honestly about whatever heavy emotions may be lingering and undigested. Stress-related indigestion invites us beyond the realm of nutrition and lifestyle and it’s important we remain open and curious.

Pre-meal sequence for balanced digestion

To prime your body for digestion, you’ll want to do a few things. We call this digestive sequencing in the functional nutrition world and it is broken into a sequence of steps:

  1. Choose – Decide what you’re going to eat and have a plan to prevent overthinking or worry.
  2. Chill – Take 5-10 deep belly breaths before you start to eat; this can also include a moment of gratitude or prayer to really appreciate the food.
  3. Chew – As you eat, take your time to enjoy and taste the food and ensure that you chew each mouthful at least 20-30 times (depending on the type of food). There should be no solid chunks being swallowed.
  4. Cherish – Enjoy the gift of a meal and the company of those you get to share meals with; we are social beings.

Following these steps will lower stress overall, and raise your presence and enjoyment of every meal that is eaten this way. This is virtually guaranteed to offer immediate improvements and continues to do so in everyone I share it with. I’ve personally used it in social settings to enjoy things I usually avoid without major consequences because I’m not stressed about it. When your body is relaxed and truly enjoying/receptive to the moment, it supports optimal digestion and resilience.

Home remedies for stress-related digestive issues

When it comes to things you can do at home to improve digestion naturally, there are many options. Many of these are what you can do after a meal for good digestion though some can take place before or during the meal.

  • Practice deep belly breathing before and during a meal (5-10 full, slow breaths).
  • Take 3-4 capsules of a potent digestive enzyme with your meals – I love Masszymes for this!
  • Sip digestive teas containing mint, ginger, lemon balm, or fennel during and after a meal. Mint, along with ginger, cumin, coriander, and fennel to name a few is a herb with carminative (gas relieving) properties. Sipping tea made from these herbs will reduce excessive gas on all fronts be it burping or passing gas.
  • Go for a relaxed 15-30 minute walk after eating.
  • Lie down on your left-hand side for 10 minutes with pillows under your head and between your knees. This positions the body for optimal digestion and relaxes the nervous system to enhance parasympathetic (rest and digest) activity. This is taught in yoga training and works wonders! Try it!
  • Take a warm/hot bath or shower; not a cold one as that would stimulate sympathetic nervous system activation and prevent digestive function.
  • Take a shot of raw apple cider vinegar (1 tbsp mixed with 1-2 oz of water). This is especially useful for acid reflux or heartburn cases where there is too little acid. Check out our in-depth heartburn article here.
  • Watch something funny or calming/stress relieving (I prefer funny animal videos).

All of these items can help to relieve stress in a non-invasive, natural way. Many of these are likely things your grandparents or great-grandparents knew about or did as part of their regular lives.

Replenish stress-related low digestive reserves with digestive enzymes and HCl supplements

Strong digestion requires that we be in a relaxed, low-stress, calm state. An ideal scenario would be to dine in a beautiful pristine park or temple with epic views and the calming sounds of nature keeping us company. Now, because most of us don’t live in those conditions most of the time, we’ve got to take steps to ensure we are as calm as possible. Especially if we have a history of stress, anxiety, and digestive challenges.

Eating and digestion require parasympathetic nervous system activities  This is why parasympathetic nervous system activity is commonly called “rest and digest” or “feed and breed”. In order for the gut to release its digestive juices, we need to know on a nervous system level that we’re safe.

If every time you eat, your mind is running wild with stressful and negative thoughts, your digestion will be impaired. This is important to realize if you tend to eat while stressed or in a hurry. You might think that eating while driving is more “efficient” but your stomach won’t understand that. Instead, your gut will get the signal to slow down and conserve energy because clearly, you’re not in a safe/stable place for eating.

Therefore, when you’re stressed, you’ll want to consider a high-quality enzyme and betaine HCl supplement. Masszymes are the most potent and effective full-spectrum enzymes around. This makes MassZymes the best digestive enzymes to replenish low digestive reserves during stress. I’ve used them for years and recommended them to many busy/stressed-out clients with fantastic results! Learn more about Masszymes and their benefits/applications by clicking here.
On the betaine HCl side of things (it’s is a main component of stomach acid), I recommend checking out HCL Breakthrough. It is a potent and synergistic formula designed to replenish stomach acid and your stomach’s digestive powers. Because it contains enzymes and trace minerals, you’ll be doing more for your digestion than simply taking pure betaine HCl. To learn more about how and why HCL Breakthrough can help you overcome indigestion and sluggish gut function click here.

What to do about stress-related burping

Stress and anxiety can cause you to hyperventilate, which tends to cause you to swallow more air during meals. As a result, you burp more afterward. Burping is a way to release the excess gas and yet when uncontrolled it can feel like/trigger anxiety/panic. The best way to relieve this is by slowing down your breath, chewing more thoroughly, and/or sipping mint tea.

One great breathing exercise is called boxed breathing which involves equal length inhale, hold, exhale, hold. Start with 4 seconds in, 4 seconds hold, 4 seconds exhale, and 4 seconds hold. Repeat this for 2-3 minutes or until you feel the shift in your nervous system. The key is having control over your breath and mind so that you can soothe your stress and bring your nervous system back into a regulated/relaxed state.

What about acid reflux? Can stress cause heartburn?

Years before the discovery of certain gut pathogens that can cause/contribute to heartburn and ulcers, stress was considered the major factor and cause. More recently it has been validated that those experiencing severe and sustained life stress are much more likely to experience heartburn. The potential mechanisms for this include:

  • Delayed gastric (stomach) emptying time because stress slows digestive processes
  • More frequent and prolonged stomach acid exposure in the throat area
  • Hypersensitivity brought on by the stress itself

These factors associated with prolonged severe stress, combined with improper digestive sequencing and a lack of conscious breathing, create the conditions for indigestion. Until you realize how these things are contributing to your digestive symptoms, it’s common to feel confused or hopeless. Know that you are not alone and that many have found sustainable paths to symptom-free living before you by leveraging the tools and practices we’re exploring here.

How stimulants like caffeine and nicotine affect your digestion

If you’re dealing with anxiety, stress, and indigestion and you regularly consume caffeine and/or nicotine, then listen up. These stimulants tax the stress response axis, which can add to your body’s stress load. Also, they change your gut’s movements and may worsen stress-related digestion for some people. 

Both coffee and nicotine stimulate the stomach to empty its content into the intestine, sometimes prematurely. If the stomach empties its highly acidic content into the small intestine before finishing its job, it will expose the small intestine to acidity and partially digest food. This can be a big problem.

While coffee or cigarette after a meal can relieve bloating or feelings of fullness, this sets us up for long-term issues if continued.Thestomach contents are supposed to be more broken down and the pH higher closer to neutral before entering the small intestine. When we trigger stomach emptying prematurely, that doesn’t happen which then irritates the sensitive lining of the small intestine.

In my personal experience and clinical practice, I’ve found coffee and cigarettes to be quite detrimental for those suffering from chronic stress or digestive issues. Some people find that coffee and tea trigger their acid reflux, while others don’t. Coffee on an empty stomach can stimulate acid secretion, which can irritate the stomach lining, especially without food. People with pre-existing stress-related digestive issues also tend to find that coffee makes them worse.

Although there are mixed results on these effects in scientific studies, there are few downsides to eliminating/reducing coffee and nicotine to see if symptoms improve.

praying before meal

Coffee alternatives that soothe the gut and reduce stress

Now, if you are addicted to coffee and the previous section triggered you in anyway, don’t worry. There are plenty of tasty, low acid, caffeine-free, delicious, and nourishing alternatives you can replace coffee with. Here are a few non-stimulatory, adaptogenic (help the body adapt to stress), and gut-soothing ideas you can use instead:

  • Roasted dandelion root tea/powder such as Dandy Blend 
  • Collagenius, our latest product that combines a powerful adaptogenic medicinal mushroom punch alongside some dark chocolate powder for more sustainable and less stimulating energy in a delicious creamy format
  • Coffee alternatives that taste great and can be combined with non-dairy milk to make a latté or blend 
  • Cacao or Cocoa elixir, although it has an energizing effect due to theobromine content, it doesn’t tend to stimulate or irritate the same way that coffee does which makes it a great morning or afternoon pick me up! Mix with milk of choice, cinnamon, and maple syrup or honey!

Ways to Lower Overall Stress to improve digestion

Think of stress as a level of liquid in a container (allostatic load). Once the stress overflows your container, you’ll start to develop symptoms. Therefore, you want to do some of the following every day to minimize the amount of stress in the container. That way, you’ll have more space in the container to perform at your best and achieve your goals while maintaining your health and digestion. 

  • Daily exercise (doesn’t have to be intense, 30 minutes of moderate activity and increased heart rate is plenty in most cases)
  • Sleeping 7-9 hrs each night, if you’re not waking rested, then sleep quality or duration could be a major culprit
  • Meditation, a great, free, effective way to lower stress, focus on your breath and body sensations, and become more present-moment aware
  • Laughter, ideally with friends or loved ones. This is super-essential in my book.
  • Eating with loved ones and friends as often as you can. Living in isolation is a known risk factor for increased mortality.
  • Avoiding screens and external distraction while eating
  • Cuddling/human touch increase oxytocin as adaptive against stress
  • Breathing exercises
  • Calming teas (reishi, lemon balm, holy basil)

The more of these positive factors you can bring into your day to day life, the better you will be able to digest food and life. Improving your stress tolerance and giving your system what it needs for strong digestion doesn’t have to be hard or complicated. The most important things are consistency and reducing the major offenders or sources of stress that are impacting you in the first place.

Taking action – Where to begin?

Clearly, many factors are at play when it comes to managing life stress and improving digestion. I trust this article has simplified things and highlighted the most worthwhile changes to consider. 
Like most things, simple and slow are best so pick 1 or 2 of these recommendations and integrate them consistently for at least 14 days before making any conclusions. Furthermore, if you are suffering from extreme mental or emotional stress, take it seriously and seek help from a qualified practitioner. It doesn’t matter how tough you might be, mental health challenges and past traumas can get the best of any of us, and finding support can make all the difference.

It’s even better if that support involves delicious mushroom lattés and laughter with friends while enjoying relaxing meals and social time together. So, this is your chance. Review what you’ve learned here, set a goal for self-experimenting to see what will work best for you, and enjoy the process!

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