Ordinary stress is the body's reaction to harmful situations whether real or perceived. But it's a medical fact that too much stress also shuts down our digestive system by activating the fight-flight-or-freeze response.

Stress increases our heart rate, speeds up breathing, tightens muscles and elevates blood pressure. All these mean you’re getting ready to act to protect yourself in what you perceive is a dangerous or threatening situation.

Our bodies can handle small doses of stress but it can't handle long-term, chronic stress without ill consequences to our health.

Doctors say inordinate stress can also cause a range of gastrointestinal problems none of us want. These problems include cramping, bloating, inflammation, loss of appetite, constipation — and indigestion or impaired digestion.

All these unwanted factors are caused by stress triggering the sympathetic nervous system that regulates the body's unconscious actions. The sympathetic nervous system's primary role is to stimulate the body's fight-flight-or-freeze response. Stress overrides the otherwise relaxed state of the sympathetic nervous system

Here's what stress does to your digestion:

  • It compromises digestion even before you put food in your mouth.
  • It increases your risk for developing digestive distress like heartburn and leaky gut.
  • It compromises peristalsis, or the constriction and relaxation of the intestinal muscles that helps move the food through the intestines.
  • It interferes with your body's ability to produce stomach acid, meaning you might not be able to fully digest all the food, especially proteins. Stomach acid helps protect us from pathogenic bacteria and viruses. That's why stomach acid is important for digestion and our overall health.
  • Stress can cause changes in the composition of our gut bacteria or microbiome. Our microbiome plays a key role in digestion, the health of our immune system and the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which affect mood.

The apparent and immediate physical symptoms of stress include headaches, upset stomach (including diarrhea, constipation and nausea), aches, pains, and tense muscles, chest pain and rapid heartbeat, nervousness and shaking, ringing in the ear, cold or sweaty hands and feet and dry mouth and difficulty in swallowing.

You can't be in a chronic state of stress without impairing your health. And you've also got to eat despite being really stressed.

Yoga, deep breathing, meditation and exercising can bring down some stress related to the coronavirus pandemic. Pixabay

If you want to both eat and calm down, you've got to enter the "parasympathetic state" when you're about to eat your food. This state will calm you down and limit the effects of stress on your digestive process. Allowing the parasympathetic system to dominate your body once again will increase salivation and the activities that lead to digestion. It will also decrease heart rate and other sympathetic responses.

Here are three tips to try to calm you down before chowing down:

  • Do belly breaths. Take deep belly breaths before you sit down to eat. Doing so will directly tell your physiology it's time to relax and prepare for digestion. It will trigger your digestive enzymes and stomach acid to activate and start flowing.
  • Chew consciously. Take your time and chew consciously, or chew slowly. Savor your food slowly. This deliberate slowness will allow your mind to quiet down and experience only what's happening right now.
  • Brush aside distractions. Focusing on eating along will help your body digest and relax as much as possible. This will be difficult at first, but it's worth the effort.