Why Mindful Eating Matters, Part 1

Anyone struggling with IBS knows stress can worsen symptoms. As a naturopathic physician, I often hear reports from patients about the ways in which stress impacts their digestion. Some people find that they are running to the bathroom more frequently or with more urgency. Sometimes the opposite can be true and people find that they cannot have healthy elimination for days or even longer. Others may experience worsened stomachaches or bloating when stressed.

While you may have experienced how stress impacts your IBS symptoms, did you know that stress can also fundamentally change the ways that your body reacts to the foods you eat?

A healthy immune response to food

When eating in low-stress conditions the immune cells that line your digestive tract are bathed in a particular neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which is released from the vagus nerve. This neurotransmitter is essential for a normal immune response to foods. When you eat, this neurotransmitter helps your body react with what immunologists call tolerance via the cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway. In a state of immune tolerance, your body will recognize the food as safe – unless it is contaminated, of course! This allows the body to view the food as something that should be taken in, digested, absorbed, and assimilated.

Stress impacts the immune system in the gut

Stress causes a decrease in acetylcholine release via the vagus nerve, and because of this, the immune system does not get the appropriate signal to react with tolerance to the food you eat. Without this signal, the immune system is more likely to respond to the food as something dangerous and can increase inflammation. This can trigger specific immune reactions, like an allergy or a delayed hypersensitivity. These reactions can occur to a particular food, or food more generally, and can include digestive symptoms, skin rashes, joint pain, headaches, brain fog, or a number of other symptoms. Eating while stressed can directly prime your body to react negatively to foods and cause uncomfortable symptoms, such as those associated with IBS.

Stress impacts the way you digest food

In addition to this immune mechanism, stress can also decrease the release of certain “digestive juices" like hydrochloric acid in the stomach, enzymes from the pancreas, bile flow from the gallbladder, and even the production of enzymes and bicarbonate from the lining of the small intestine.

These digestive functions are also mediated by the acetylcholine release from the vagus, which is directly suppressed by stress. Without these important digestive secretions, you cannot digest or absorb your food properly. This can result in partially digested pro-inflammatory proteins or fermentable carbohydrates making their way into your bloodstream or to later portions of our digestive tract. Immune reactions to these food particles, or fermentation by gut microbes, can contribute to symptoms of IBS or other inflammatory conditions.

Knowledge is power with IBS

While it may be obvious to you that stress worsens your IBS, it can be empowering to understand some of the mechanisms that cause this. This knowledge should highlight the importance of not only reducing life stressors generally but of actively working to eat your meals in a low-stress state.

In my experience, the single best way that you can encourage this is to employ concepts of mindful eating. Mindful eating is the practice of being present with your food during meal preparation and eating. I will discuss some of the most successful mindful eating strategies in part 2 of this article.

Click here for part two.

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