How chronic stress compromised my digestive health (+ a recipe for my no fuss, gut-restorative breakfast bowl)
Frequent gas, bloating, irritable bowels and irregularity are some of the more commonly discussed red flag symptoms associated with poor digestive health or leaky gut. But there are other, lesser known signs that might be telling you how good (or bad) your digestive health is.
Like so many of you, I take a keen interest in maintaining good health and wellness.
Leaky gut never really concerned me because I believed that my diet and healthy lifestyle helped protect me against many of the main culprits of poor gut health, including inflammatory foods, such as gluten, dairy and refined sugars; infections caused by parasites and bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine; and environmental toxins, such as pesticides or BPA from plastics.
I follow a plant based diet comprised mostly of organic whole foods, and detoxify through regular high intensity workouts and the odd bentonite clay bath or infrared sauna session, and try to cleanse 1-2 times a year.
Not to mention the fact that I never really suffered from any of the symptoms that I believed to be more obvious signs of poor digestive health, like gas, bloating or IBS.
But in the last year, I learned that there is a lot about our digestive systems that I simply wasn't aware of. And as it turns out, mine was not functioning very well.
The first lesson learned was that a healthy diet and regular exercise will not protect the body from the perils of chronic stress.
I tend to burn the candle at both ends on most days. Constantly taking on more than I could (or should) handle in many aspects of my life, left me feeling tired, overworked, riddled with anxiety, and without much time to rest, relax and recover.
But in the last year or so, I began to notice a shift in my health. My skin changed in every way imaginable; it was dull, super dry and I was breaking out (on and around my chin) like never before. I was also getting headaches - horrible ones that would last for days - for the first time ever in my life . And a lot of the time, I felt either irritable or sad, and unusually lethargic.
Then I stopped getting my period. Only once this happened did I even consider the fact that all of these things might be related.
My doctor ruled out any serious health issues, but did confirm that I had a hormonal imbalance. Before recommending anything else, she suggested that I find ways to reduce my stress.
Generally speaking, I knew that stress wasn’t great for your health. But before this, I was not at all aware how detrimental it can actually be - especially when it comes to our digestive health. Here are just a few examples of how stress can wreak havoc on and negatively impact our bodies:
- It can cause food to move too quickly through your system, not leaving enough time for the nutrients to be absorbed, which leads to nutritional deficiencies; or in other cases, digestion can literally shut down. This leads to constipation, which interrupts the detoxification process.
- The body’s response to stress causes the sympathetic nervous systems to produce a chemical reaction that wipes out a large proportion of our good gut bacteria, which we need to help fight off viruses (bad bacteria), digest our food, and more. Sustained periods of little or no good bacteria can lead to a weakened immune system, and overall inflammation of the body.
- The body’s stress response can also lead to the release of cortisol (the stress hormone), which diverts energy and blood flow away from the body and redirects it to our muscles and brain. When blood flow is diverted from the gut, digestion and our immune system slows down or comes to a halt; and we stop receiving the nutrients we need to protect us against infection and inflammation.
Eventually, chronic exposure to stress, and these affects that ensue, can cause the lining of our intestine to become damaged, where, under normal circumstances, this lining should act as a barrier between our gut and the rest of our body. As a result, dangerous amounts of undigested molecules, toxins, bacteria and other waste can now flow freely through the blood stream (which is where the term 'leaky gut' comes from).
The good news is that poor digestive health is not irreversible. In my case, a few diet and lifestyle to help optimize and increase nutrient absorption made all the difference.
Adopting a 'no rush' policy each morning, so that I could start each day in a slow, relaxing manner, was by far my favorite (and I think the most helpful).
After I wake up, and before I do anything else, I'll sip on hot water and lemon, and allow myself to sit still for at least an hour. The warm water helps relax the bowel, while the acid in lemon slows digestion to allow for greater nutrient absorption. However, in my experience, this practice leads to effective elimination only when I actually take the time to sit and let it happen.
If your morning routine doesn’t give you the luxury of this kind of time, then I highly recommend that you wake up earlier - whether you’re in need of warm water with lemon or not. I've learned that there is no point in my day that is more peaceful and relaxing than those early morning hours, when the rest of the world is still asleep.
I also created a powerhouse breakfast bowl full of gut friendly, restorative foods that are also believed to help with regular elimination. It includes:
- Oat bran, containing healthy amounts of insoluble fiber, which passes through the system largely undigested and add to the bulk of your stool, making it easier to pass/eliminate
- Chia seeds, soaked first for 20 minutes, which makes them easier to digest and increases nutrient absorption.
- Pumpkin seeds, for omega 3s, antioxidants, fiber and zinc, to promote a healthy heart and liver, and improve immunity.
- Walnuts, which contain omegas 3 and 6, and help control inflammation and improve blood circulation.
- Bananas, for prebiotics and non-digestible carbohydrates that serve as food for good bacteria (i.e. probiotics), which helps improve digestion.
- Coconut yogurt (containing probiotics), to improve digestive function, increase immunity and help heal inflammatory diseases.
- Raspberries, which are loaded with antioxidants and contain a significant amount of fiber (8 grams in just one cup!)
I love this bowl because it's incredibly nutrient dense, restorative, and downright delicious. And although this post is all about slowing down and taking it easy, I can't help but also love how fast and easy it is to throw together!
Gut restorative breakfast bowl
Prep Time: 20 minutes | Cook Time: 5 minutes | Yields: 1 servings
- 1/2 cup oat brain
- 1 tablespoon chia seeds, soaked
- 1/2 banana, sliced
- 1/3 cup raspberries
- 2 tbsp raw pumpkins seeds
- 2 tbsp raw walnuts, chopped
- 2 tbsp coconut yogurt (with probiotics)
- 1 cup boiled water
- Add chia seeds to bowl of filtered water, set aside for 20 minutes
- Combine one cup of boiled water and oat brain in a separate salad or soup sized bowl; allow to sit until water is absorbed by the bran
- Drain the water from the bowl of chia seeds using a fine mesh stainer
- Lay all ingredients out on top of the oat bran, and enjoy.