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How Your Thoughts & Digestion Are Connected

By Heidi Baldwin, MS, Holistic Health Coach

How we feel can have tremendous effects on our physical well-being, both in positive and negative ways. Mental and physical health are not separate, but deeply intertwined. Probably one of the clearest examples of this connection is the link between our thoughts and the digestive system, known as the gut-brain connection.

The digestive system is a powerful but sensitive organ system. From experiencing motion sickness to feeling queasy at the sight of blood, many of us have experienced an upset digestive system triggered by something other than food and drinks. If you’ve ever felt anxious or stressed, you may have experienced an uncomfortable feeling in your belly as a result. That is a perfect example of how our thoughts can impact our digestive system. The connection between our minds and digestion is also evident when we look at the vast number of nerves that we have in the gut. The central nervous system in the brain regulates the many processes of digestion.

When we feel stressed, our bodies go into fight-or-flight mode. From an evolutionary perspective, this was a critical response that prepared us to either run away or fight when faced with danger. Nowadays, this situation usually isn’t applicable, but the physical response by the body is still the same. When the fight-or-flight response is activated, the body releases cortisol, which is our stress hormone. When we are chronically stressed (which many of us are), cortisol is continuously released, leading to negative consequences on our health. As you may imagine, a situation where one would either have to run or fight is not the best time to digest food. Thus, in response to stress, the body slows down digestion. Stress can cause irregular bowel movements (such as constipation), inflammation in the digestive tract, nausea, and increased acidity in the stomach, which can cause heartburn and ulcers. Stress can have even more detrimental consequences over time and can worsen symptoms in conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

On a more positive note, reducing stress can do wonders for the digestive system. Find ways to relax and improve your mood. What do you enjoy doing? What brings you peace? Yoga and meditation are both effective ways to decrease stress and improve your digestive health. Start by meditating for a minute or two each day, and see how you feel. With practice, you’ll find it easier to sit for more extended periods at a time. Exercise is also a healthy way to reduce stress, especially if you’re able to go outdoors. Exercise releases endorphins, which are feel-good hormones that decrease stress and elevate our mood. Moving your body also helps to get things moving in your digestive system, which can help with constipation or bloating. Remember to make time for yourself and make your well-being a priority.

Mindfulness is key, and I regularly remind clients to avoid watching TV, especially the news, while eating. Energetically you are consuming what you are watching and that has a great impact on the body physically. Create an eating routine that keeps you calm and happy, and brings you to a place of serenity. Use candles if you’d like, and eat off the special plates. Take a moment to give thanks for what you are about to consume. Eat slowly and deliberately, being mindful of nourishing your body. Making this a routine should have you noticing improvements in your digestion!

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