Stress and food intolerances

Stress and food intolerances

Stress has a significant impact on the human body, so much so that it can increase food intolerance reactions! It does this by causing excessive inflammation, which can damage our digestive tract. Problems such as leaky gut, gastritis, IBS, indigestion, reflux and more can get worse as our stress levels rise. Let’s discover how this happens.


When we talk about stress upsetting the digestive system, it is the chronic low-level type of stress that we refer to. Things like a very full email inbox, not getting enough sleep, not eating properly, and experiencing a lack of pleasure in our lives can all cause this type of prolonged and low-grade stress. It goes on for an extended period of time and produces excessive amounts of cortisol inside our bodies. Cortisol is dubbed ‘the stress hormone’, and this is because it activates the stress response and causes all sorts of problems to occur. When the stress response becomes active, our sympathetic nervous system is in control, and this, in turn, suppresses the rest and digest functions of our body.

It is our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) that controls resting and digesting in the body, and we need it to be turned on when we eat. This is because it controls all of the digestive liquids that we need for efficient digestion, things like stomach acid and digestive enzymes. When we are stressed, the PNS is switched off. Of course, this has a dramatic effect on our ability to digest food and access energy and nutrients properly. It can also be responsible for causing large amounts of inflammation, which is often the culprit for food intolerances due to a damaged gut lining, otherwise known as leaky gut. We have an article titled ‘SIBO & food intolerances’, which explains in more depth how this occurs.

We want to give you some tips now to help you reduce your stress levels safely and protect your digestive abilities. There are six key area’s to look at, and they are:

  • Mindfulness
  • Exercise
  • Yoga
  • Deep breathing
  • Meditation
  • Progressive muscle relaxation

Let’s take a look into each of them.

Mindfulness: The first step to recovering from anything is to become aware of it. Start to become conscious of how you feel, and if stress is having a significant impact on your feeling and quality of life. The following strategies can really help you to relieve stress and improve wellbeing.

Exercise – the type of activity that you do can either create stress in your body or release it. High impact exercise is NOT good when you are stressed and will produce more stress hormones for your body to deal with. Instead, opt for gentle types of exercise such as walking in nature, yoga, tai chi etc. These types of movement will calm your body, release tension, and allow a more gentle flow of oxygen and nutrients to fuel your cells.

Yoga is an exercise that can be particularly useful to relieve stress and help digestion. Many of the poses are directly aimed at the digestive organs. Aside from this, it can relax your mind, help you sleep better, and teach you how to connect your breath to your body. Yoga with Adriene is an excellent resource for yoga sessions; you can find it for free on youtube.

Diaphragm breathing – very deep belly breathing is an essential part of stress relief practices. It is the only known way to turn on the PNS, which allows your body to efficiently rest and digest. Try 10 deep belly breathes, breathing in to a count of 4, holding to a count of 2, breathing out to a count of 4, and holding for a count of 2. Repeat this cycle 10 times. It’s great to do when you jump into bed at night, but also at intervals throughout your day. For maximum impact, the more you practice it, the better it will be for you. 

Meditation – this is an excellent mindfulness tool. It allows you to deeply connect to your breath, your mind and your body. If you are new to meditation, try a short guided session. You can find them for free on youtube. You can also practice using your breath for meditation, by focuses solely on it for any length of time. Meditation is a tool that can be done in many different ways, so it’s great to experiment and find what will serve you best.

Progressive muscle relaxation – this is another fabulous stress-busting tool. You progressively go through each major muscle group in your body, tensing and releasing it in turn. If you’ve never done this before, its another one that you can look up on youtube for guidance. Basically, you can either start at your feet or your head and tense this part of your body. Slowly release the tension, paying attention to how it feels in the muscles and in your mind. Move up or down your body, and tense each big muscle as you move, and then slowly release it. It takes approximately 10 to 15 minutes to move through your body slowly and deliberately with this exercise, and it causes a feeling of deep relaxation.


Stress can play a significant role in the health of your digestive tract, and in turn, whether you experience food intolerance reactions. In a nutshell, extended periods of low-grade stress cause an increase in cortisol in your body, and this causes excessive inflammation in the digestive system. Over time you can experience symptoms and conditions such as leaky gut, IBS, indigestion, reflux and more. If you find that you are experiencing these food reactions ‘out of the blue’, or if they happen after significant stress in your life, then we have some wonderful strategies for you to help relieve stress and get you back on track.

These strategies include:

  • Mindfulness
  • Gentle exercises, and avoiding strenuous exercise
  • Full deep diaphragm breathing
  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Progressive muscle relaxation

We explain more about each in the article. The aim of these strategies is to help reduce the amount of cortisol your body produces. When you combine this with other therapies such as herbal or nutritional medicine, dietary advice etc., it is highly effective at reducing the impact stress has in your life and healing your digestive tract. 

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