Really?! This little mind-blowing statement comes from the amazing Emeran Mayer; gastroenterologist, neuro-scientist, researcher and world-leader in the area of gut-brain interactions.
Mind-blowing, because it is pretty safe to say that the majority of us are stressed out and unhappy a lot of the time, although most have absolutely no idea. If we follow this advice we may never eat again! There is a common misconception that if we are “coping,” then we can’t be stressed. Stress is often perceived as what happens to us when we don’t cope. Wrong.
Stress comes in disguise. It can be a busy commute, eating on the move, nutrient-deficiencies, poor sleep, an angry boss, lack of exercise, too much exercise, ruminating on negative stuff, having a 24/7 lifestyle – all of these situations can activate our physiological stress response. And stress can sneak up on us. Much like the dirty laundry basket, it can quietly accumulate over time and then before we know it, bam! We have lost control.
Whether we realise it or not, most of us are stressed. Add in the fact that around 80% of our daily subconscious thoughts are negative (yes, you have read this correctly), or that one in four of us will suffer with some form of depression or mental health condition in any given year; and it is safe to assume that sadness is pretty prevalent as well.
So why is eating when we are stressed, angry or sad such a bad thing? To put it simply, when we are stressed or angry our digestive system switches off. (Our stress response is a work of evolutionary genius but it hasn’t caught up with 21st century living). Imagine putting a load of vegetables into a food processor and then expecting to get neatly chopped veg without switching it on. We are putting food in our mouths while our digestive food processor is switched to idle. Cue digestive symptoms such as heartburn, bloating, constipation, diarrhoea, and over time nutrient deficiencies and a whole host more.
But there is another reason why eating when stressed, anxious or angry can be damaging. Our gut contains trillions of bacteria, which science is now discovering play a critical role in our health. Many chronic conditions have been linked with out of whack gut bacteria, if we want to be healthy then we need to look after our gut bugs. Eating with our digestive system switched off is a fast track path to gut bug discontent.
As if this isn’t bad enough, signalling molecules released by our brain in response to negative emotions and stress, don’t stay in our brain. They have an effect on the rest of our body and have a direct influence on our gut bacteria (basically putting them on the receiving end of accidental friendly fire. Big mistake.) These stress molecules can also alter the terrain of our gut, making it a much less hospitable home for our bacterial friends.
In effect our stress is stressful for our gut microbes too, and keeping our gut microbes happy and stress-free is absolutely critical for good health.
What can we do to help our digestion and our friendly microbes?
For starters we can smile more. Easy! The physical act of forcing a smile biohacks our brain, releasing feel good chemicals that can help to combat stress and sadness.
Breathing exercises can also help to reduce the stress response and switch on our digestive system. Take two minutes before eating to calm down. Try 3.4.5 breathing (breath in slowly and deeply for a count of 3, pause for four and breathe out slowly for five).
So next time that you eat, remember that you are not alone; your gut bugs are eating with you. Sit down, calm down, smile and enjoy the party.
- Mayer E (2016) The mind-gut connection. How the hidden conversation within our bodies impacts our mood, our choices and our overall health. NY. Harper Collins.
- Michigan State University (2017) Challenge your negative thoughts (https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/challenge_your_negative_thoughts)
- Mental Health facts and Statistics (2016) Mind (https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/statistics-and-facts-about-mental-health/how-common-are-mental-health-problems/#.XQJEBIhKg2y)
- Riggio R (2012) There’s Magic in Your Smile, how smiling affects your brain. Psychology Today (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/cutting-edge-leadership/201206/there-s-magic-in-your-smile)
- Chatterjee R (2018) Practice stillness daily. The 4 Pillar Plan. UK. Penguin Life