Stress and food intolerances

Can stress cause food intolerances?

Did you know that stress can make your food intolerances worse? It is a little-known fact with a significant impact, and it works through the degradation of our gut lining. We know from previous articles that when our digestive tract is inflamed, it can cause small holes in the lining, this is known as a leaky gut. When this occurs, food particles can get through into the bloodstream and cause food intolerance reactions to flare up. Let ustake a look into how stress works on the gut and causes this to happen.

When we have a low level of chronic stress for an extended period of time, it can cause a lot of damage to our digestive health. This stress can be anything from work and relationship stress, to things like lack of sleep, too much exercise and not allowing ourselves to feel joy or pleasure in our day to day lives. When our body feels stress in any way, it produces a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol activates what we call the sympathetic nervous system or our stress response. We react with either fight or flight to this rise in cortisol. Unfortunately, this suppresses our parasympathetic nervous system, which is the part that takes care of resting and digesting.

How does stress impact the nervous system?

The parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) is in action when we eat (usually unless we are stressed). It controls the enzymes and hormones that are needed for proper digestion, which allows us to get the most nutrition and energy from our food. So, when cortisol floods the body instead, and we are stressed out, this blocks the parasympathetic nervous system and dramatically compromises our ability to digest and absorb nutrients. It can also cause our gut lining to become very irritated, inflamed, and damaged. It is this inflammation and damage that give rise to food intolerance reactions. This, of course, creates further inflammation, which increases the production of cortisol. It is a vicious cycle that keeps going and can lead to reduced stomach acid production, leaky gut, food intolerance reactions, motility issues and more severe digest distress too. 

It is this leaky gut that is primarily responsible for sudden onset of food intolerances. You can read more about how this works in our article titled ‘SIBO & Food Intolerances’.

Here is what you can do to reduce your stress levels and ultimately improve your digestive health:

Become mindful of how you are feeling, and whether stress is playing a significant role in your life. If you realise that it is a big part of your life, here are some simple strategies that you can use to release stress and aid your overall health.


Gentle exercise 

This can be a huge help in releasing stress from the body. Gentle walks, yoga for digestive healing or tai chi are all fantastic stress-busting options. When you are working to heal your gut and relieve stress, it is important to steer clear of any strenuous, overly physical exercise. This is because it creates even more cortisol for your body to deal with, which is precisely what you are trying to avoid.

Many yoga poses are directly aimed at the digestive tract, and you can also lookup yoga for digestive health on YouTube.

Deep breathing

Full diaphragmatic breathes, the kind where your hands move when you place them on your belly button and breathe in deeply, is the only known way to turn on the rest and digest part of our nervous systems naturally. It creates a state in which we can access deep relaxationand allows us to reduce cortisol production when done regularly. A good rule of thumb for using deep breathing as a stress-busting technique is to practice 10 deep full breathes in and out when you wake up in the morning, just before morning tea, just before afternoon tea, and when you get into bed at night. It does not take long, and it can give you some excellent results quickly.



This is really just about being still and sitting with your own thoughts, rather than always absorbing from others. Take time to rest, relax, and focus only on your breath. Feel what it feels like going in through your nostrils and down into your lungs. Then notice how it feels different, warmer, as it comes back up and out of your body. You can look up ‘short guided meditations’ on YouTube if you would like to listen to someone guiding you through the exercises, which is perfect if you are a beginner or haven’t meditated for a long time.

Full body relaxation exercise

This is another deeply relaxing exercise that allows you to let go of any tension in your body. You start this exercising by consciously tensing your feet, holding this tension, and then releasing it on a big out-breath. Notice how the release feels, how the blood flows to your foot, and ask for any tension and stress to be released as you release your muscles. Slowly move up your body and tense each major muscle group in turn, hold, and then release it. The whole exercise takes about 10 to 15 minutes and will leave you feeling deeply peaceful. If you would like to be guided in this exercise, you can also find guided body relaxations on YouTube.


Today we’ve learnt how stress can be a significant factor in your digestive health, and the development of food intolerance reactions. This is particularly so when the food reactions come on suddenly, during or after a significant period of stress. This works through the release of cortisol into the bloodstream, which causes inflammation and degradation of the digestive tract. Over time this can develop into leaky gut, allowing food particles through into the bloodstream and causing intolerance reactions to occur. 

When stress is a big player in your health or lack thereof, there are several ways that you can safely release this stress and tension and bring yourself back to better health. These include first becoming aware that stress is a problem for you, and then putting into place any of the following techniques to combat it:


  • Gentle exercise, such as yoga or tai chi.
  • Deep breathing on a regular daily basis.
  • Meditation.
  • Full body relaxation.

These techniques allow your body to release and stop the production of cortisol. In turn, this reduces the inflammation in your digestive tract. When combined with other therapies, it will play a big part in allowing you to heal fully from any digestive distress you may be experiencing.

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