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As Prescribed Blog

Stress and nutrition affect our physical and emotional health

Traci Wilson Traci Wilson August 28, 2020 0 Comments Nutrition

Stress can have a profound effect on proper nutrition, physical activity, and overall well-being (and vice versa)! The reality of this web is that when one is out of balance it is likely that the others will also be out of balance, which leads to decreased overall health (physical, mental, emotional), decreased immunity and increased risk for disease.

Stress and Nutrition Impact us both Physically and Psychologically.

Physical Stress - When a person’s stress triggers the fight-or-flight response, digestion slows or even stops so that the body can turn all energy to the perceived threat. With less severe or acute stress, the digestive process may slow or be temporarily disrupted, causing abdominal pain and other symptoms of functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorders. Stress responses overall negatively impact all nutrient interactions and have been associated with an array of health concerns such as different GI disorders, autoimmune diseases, and hypertension. The relationship between environmental or psychological stress and GI distress is complex. Today, GI disorders are often treated using psychologic treatments (or stress-relief techniques) and improving gut health by nourishing the body with pre and probiotics. Research has found that people with increased anxiety, stress or depression have different gut bacteria profiles (gut microbiome), which in turn has a profound impact on one’s stress level, their health, disease prevention and immunity.

Psychological Stress - What do you reach for when you are stressed? Likely, not celery or broccoli. Many of us might turn to food (whether hungry or not) when we are stressed, sad, lonely, or experiencing anxiety. This reaction is often a learned behavior. Food can be comforting, especially those foods with dopamine-releasing qualities often found in "junk" foods. Foods high in fat, sugar, and salt (or a combination of those) trigger the reward system in our brain, temporarily making you feel better. The vicious cycle may continue when you feel guilty for eating the "junk" foods, causing another stress response inside your body (oxidative cell damage and inflammation). Additionally, eating these "junk" foods often influences your gut microbiome, and thus your overall health and immunity.

What food choices would help? Eating foods rich in nutrients, antioxidants, phytonutrients, water, and fiber will not only help to decrease your physiological stress but will help to improve your overall health through various mechanisms. Also, fostering healthy bacteria for your gut can help to improve your gut microbiome for optimal well-being. Using pre and probiotics has proven to decrease stress and anxiety, improve mood and improve GI functioning.

Prebiotics are compounds that are found in plants that cannot be digested by humans but can be digested by bacteria in your gut. Additionally, these prebiotics feed the probiotics (healthy bacteria). You can find prebiotics in foods such as asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, bananas, whole grain oatmeal, and legumes (beans). Probiotics are found in fermented foods and beverages such as yogurt with "live active cultures", sauerkraut, miso soup, soft cheeses, kimchi, Kombucha and even sourdough bread. Focusing on pre- and probiotics in your diet can also help to combat other things that can negatively impact your gut health in addition to stress, such as antibiotics, sugar, and certain medications.

For a list of stress fighting foods, and a guide to prebiotics and probiotics, please review the following:


This blog was adapted from a Wellness Council of America presentation, "Low Stress Eating: The Connection Between Stress and Nutrition" by Kaitlyn Pauly, MS, RD and Sarah Emanual, MS, CHES.

Additional sources:

Suarez K, et al. "Psychological Stress and Self-Reported Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders," The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease (March 2010): Vol. 198, No. 3, pp. 226–29.

Guinane, C, Cotter, P. Role of the gut micobiota in health and chronic gastrointestinal disease: understanding a hidden metabolic organ. Ther Adv Gastroenterol (2013) 6(4) 295–308 DOI: 10.1177/ 1756283X13482996 © 2013. Reprints and permissions: journalsPermissions.nav

Griffin, M. (2010) 10 Health Problems Related to Stress that you can Fix. WebMD.

Cho I., Blaser M. (2012) The human microbiome: at the interface of health and disease. Nat Rev Genet 13: 260–270. Google Scholar Medline