Do you ever feel bloated or have an upset stomach? Do you ever think back and ask yourself, yikes what did I eat? I have to believe I’m not the only one who has been looking for ways to address my digestive health issues for years. I’ve gone dairy-free, gluten-free, egg-free, and a hundred other things-free, but nothing has improved my digestion as much as one very simple thing that no doctor ever suggested that I try: Focusing on my mental health.
It may sound vague, but there is all sorts of ground-breaking research on the gut-brain connection. I tried eliminating more foods from my diet than I can count to try and identify the problem. But I continued to suffer until I prioritized my mental wellbeing.
Digestive Health Troubles: Part 1
I began having gut health problems at a very young age. One of my earliest memories is my dad taking me to the hospital to “see what’s wrong with my tummy”. My medical team was highly suspicious of celiac disease, but after numerous tests, they came up empty-handed.
They said there was nothing wrong with me. The doctors told my parents they had no idea why their daughter was constantly complaining of stomach aches.
All they could tell us was that I was lactose-intolerant. However, I had stomach pain on a very regular basis for most of my childhood, despite not eating dairy. As I got older, lactose didn’t seem to affect me as much + I was generally able to live my life without stomach pain. But I felt bloated almost all the time starting my senior year of high school.
Digestive Health Troubles: Part 2
Fast forward to college, and I began experiencing digestive issues almost daily. I learned about naturopathic medicine and decided to see a local naturopathic doctor. I took a food sensitivity test, and almost every food that I regularly ate came back positive – meaning I was intolerant to that food. Gluten, eggs, dairy, peanuts, almonds, and a long list of many of my favorite foods + some that I hadn’t eaten in years.
It was devastating. I could no longer eat my usual favs, like eggs, yogurt, peanut butter, smoothies, protein bars, sandwiches, ice cream, the list goes on. I received those test results and all I could think was WHAT ON EARTH am I going to eat then??
The elimination diet: a challenging way to *maybe* improve digestive health
My naturopathic doctor educated me on an elimination diet, an eating plan that removes foods believed to cause an adverse reaction in the body. Essentially, I removed all the foods I was intolerant to from my diet for a period of time + gradually reintroduced them.
The thing about elimination diets is that you always have to know exactly what you are putting into your body in order for the experiment to shed any light on which foods are truly the problem. That makes going out to eat almost impossible unless every menu item has an ingredient list available. It means you have to read EVERY nutrition label. And you feel like you become the annoying friend who is super particular about what she eats.
An elimination diet also means you need to have A LOT of willpower. You can’t just have a little bite of pizza when you are eliminating dairy + gluten – when you do that, you are reintroducing those foods back into your diet. This can prolong the process of the elimination diet and send you back to square one if it’s not yet time to reintroduce gluten + dairy. And odds are, you will NOT be reintroducing two huge food groups like that at the same time. It’s a very gradual, methodical process.
It made it nearly impossible not to think about food all the time. As a college student, this was especially hard. When all I wanted to do was have fun + feel carefree with my friends, I was restricting myself in ways that had a trickle down effect into virtually all areas of my life. I couldn’t have certain types of alcohol, so going out on a Friday night became more complicated. Going out to eat became an internal battle of: “Is it worth potentially eating something with an ingredient I’m intolerant to? Or should I just stay home so I don’t risk it?”. Grocery shopping became more expensive + food prep took way longer. Just figuring out what to eat every day took up a significant amount of my time + energy.
If you want to read more about my health journey and the role my relationship with food played in it, head over to my very first blog post!
What about my mental health?
In this effort to heal my physical body, I was unintentionally harming my mind. Food + body image were already struggles of mine, and suddenly, my favorite foods became the enemy.
I strongly believe that before anyone goes on an elimination diet, or any diet for that matter, the pros + cons should be carefully weighed. And other potential causes of digestive health issues should be looked at first.
Do I think that the elimination diet worked for me? Not in and of itself. In other words, the elimination diet did not work for me UNTIL I addressed one other crucial area in my life:
MY MENTAL WELL-BEING.
The mind-gut connection is unreeeaaaal. You know how you feel butterflies in your stomach when you’re excited? Or you feel nauseous before you’re about to do something that gives you anxiety? That is the mind-gut connection, and it plays a huge role in our health.
Do you ever experience any of the following symptoms?
- Upset Stomach
- IBS/some form of all of the above
If yes, then bear with me for a moment because I don’t think this topic is discussed NEARLY enough. It is a serious game changer when it comes to improving digestive health.
The incredible power of the mind-gut connection
When you’re stressed out, your body releases a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol activates the sympathetic nervous system – what you may have heard referred to before as the fight or flight system. I think of this as the system that kicks into gear if a bear is chasing you. (And you are terrified and running for your life.)
What happens when your body prioritizes survival in a time of crisis like this? Your body directs blood flow to your muscles (so you can run). Your heart beats faster (so it can pump more blood). And your pupils dilate (so you can see your surroundings better) to name a few things.
This also means that your body is DECREASING blood flow to your organs…namely, your gastrointestinal system. So if you are eating while feeling stressed, your body is not able to digest your food well. You won’t be absorbing nutrients properly. And your GI system becomes inflamed. In other words, if you are stressed out while you eat, you are going to have digestive health issues!
Most people only think about the latest article they’ve read that says stress causes overeating. People think “Stress is bad because it will cause me to have lots of cravings + eat too much!”
First of all, that is not always the case for everyone. And second of all, what about the much larger issue related to stress and eating?! Our bodies do not effectively digest food when we are stressed out. They simply aren’t designed for that. Instead, our bodies kick into survival mode.
(ie. run away from the bear + don’t get killed by the bear…aka your body says, “digesting food is not the priority here, guys!”)
Have I convinced you yet of how important it is to eat when you are feeling relaxed + are able to enjoy your food? I know this is not always possible – sometimes ya gotta eat when you’re feeling stressed out or else you literally won’t eat. BUT the take-home message here is that digestive health issues will probably persist no matter what you do unless you are taking steps to manage your mental well-being + stress. If you to specific ideas on how to manage anxiety/stress, I go over 10 actionable strategies here!
I still have a lot of questions about elimination diets + whether or not it truly helped me. I don’t think it was a bad thing to switch up my eating patterns – I really do feel that rotating foods in my diet is better than eating the exact same breakfast + lunch every day. However, I 1000% believe that stress + anxiety have been directly related to my digestive health problems ever since I was a little girl.
If I could go back in time, I would have tried two things before doing an elimination diet (or even getting a food sensitivity test in the first place). These two things have improved my digestive health more than anything else – they are serious GAME-CHANGERS.
- Avoid eating while feeling stressed whenever possible.
- Prioritize my mental well-being, especially stress + anxiety.
I take this so seriously now. I used to be of the mindset that health = a healthy physical body. Over time, I have learned that that is very much so not the end all be all. My physical body is one part of a much more complex + intricate system. What good comes from sacrificing my mental health for a physically healthy body? In my opinion, very little good. It’s just not worth the trade-off.
Physical health is only one piece of the puzzle
I created Nourish with Nik to try to redefine the word healthy. I think our mental + emotional health is of utmost importance, especially because it has such an impact on our physical well-being. Yet we don’t talk about this connection enough.
My journey with digestive issues lasted much longer than it probably needed to. But I believe everything unfolds in the time that it’s meant to, and now I understand on a much deeper level how important mental well-being is in order to feel physically well.
Once I recognized that eating while stressed out was wreaking havoc on my digestive system, it changed everything. I literally got a new job.
And once I realized how intertwined stress + anxiety are with digestive health, my mental + emotional well-being got bumped to the top of my priority list. Now, I do my best to surround myself with positivity, prioritize self-care, do the things that I love more often, and simplify my life so I can focus more on the things that truly matter to me, rather than the things that create unnecessary stress + anxiety in my life.
If you are struggling to figure out how to improve your digestive health, I would love to hear what happens if you shift your focus to your mental health. And even if you don’t experience bloating or an upset stomach on a regular basis, I hope this post helps in understanding the crucial connection between stress + digestive health. I’d love to hear how focusing on your mental wellbeing impacts your physical health in the comments below!