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  • Marie Belzile-Davidson, MS, RDN, LD

Improving Nutrition and Digestion through Stress Management and Self-Care - Holiday Edition

Let's get this out of the way right off the bat - the holidays look different this year because, well, life looks different this year! Two things may not be so different though - the stress and lack of time to do everything that surrounds the holidays. Yes, this is a time to be grateful, giving, and gathering (virtually this year) but it also comes with a lot of planning and prepping! Maybe it's preparing special meals, figuring out what gifts to buy, trying to make ends meet with extra expenses, feeling like this year needs to be extra magical to compensate for the difficulties we've all faced...I think you get it. The responsibilities we all place on ourselves, plus the circumstances that are out of our control add up in a hurry. On top of it, these added responsibilities and stress often mean we take less time for our own self-care.

It's no secret that self-care and reduced stress improve our overall health. Did you know that they also tie directly into good nutrition? It's true! How stressed we are, how long we take to eat meals, how much sleep we get, our physical activity levels, and so much more directly impacts how well we eat and how much we get out of the food we eat. No one has the time to do it all and still have time for self-care and stress-reduction, so we need to be mindful and make time. It's not selfish to do so, it's putting your own oxygen mask on first so you can better help others. I'm not saying it's simple - I easily get caught in a rut or taking care of everyone around me except myself. However, prioritizing your health and well-being is absolutely worth it! If you need a little reminder from time to time like I do, you can write yourself a note and stick it on your mirror or front door! Also, here's some great news - taking the time to read this blog is an act of self-care.

Let's take a look at how stress and self-care can directly impact our nutrition, plus some ways to mindfully manage those situations throughout the holidays and everyday life! Now, in the continued spirit of "not doing it all," try to incorporate one small thing at a time. Any action to improve your health and well-being is better than inaction.

Stress and Digestion

Let's start with good old stress. Believe it or not, stress has its place in a healthy and balanced body but too much of it can have some consequences. When we experience stress, our body releases specific hormones known as glucocorticoids (1). These hormones impact our HPA axis, which controls a whole heck of a lot, from heart function, to immune function, and you guessed it - metabolism (2)! Now, our HPA axis talks closely with our autonomic system which controls our digestive system (3,4). This system also controls whether we're using our parasympathetic nervous system ("rest and digest") or sympathetic nervous system ("fight or flight") (3).

In healthy digestion, our body is in its “rest and digest” state (5,6). This allows our food to make its way through the digestive and waste elimination processes as it should, letting us get the most out of our meal (4). However, too much stress kicks us into “fight or flight mode" (5). In this state, the body is focused on getting out of the stressful situation rather than getting the most nutrients out of the food you just ate. We are no longer focused on digestion - we aren't producing enough enzymes and stomach acid to properly digesting our meal, movement of food through our digestive tract can be slowed (which can lead to constipation, gas, bloating, you name it), and to make matters worse, movement in our colon can actually increase at the same time (4). This can lead to diarrhea. Ever had constipation and diarrhea close together and wondered how that was possible? Here's how! None of that sounds fun, right? So let's look at a few simple ways to reduce stress:

  • Opt for disposable plates and silverware to cut down on dishwashing stress (recycle if you can)

  • Take a few deep breaths or say a prayer before a meal

  • If you're cooking a holiday feast, use the leftovers to cut down on additional cooking

  • Start the day by thinking of three things you're looking forward to instead of scrolling through your phone

  • Differentiate between the "must-dos" and "nice-to-dos" on your to-do list - let go of a few tasks that aren't necessary

  • Recruit other household members to help with simple tasks on your to-do lists - a little help adds up quickly

  • Schedule stress-reducing activities just as you would any other task or meeting-think exercise, yoga, a family walk, a few minutes to read a book, etc.

Taking Time to Eat Your Meals

It takes time for our brain to realize that we are full - in fact, it takes about 20 minutes from the time we start eating! Signals sent from our nerves, like the pain you feel when you accidentally cut yourself, take less than a second to reach our brain. However, hunger and satiety work a little differently. These two sensations are the result of hormone signaling between our gut and our brain, that's why it takes more time (7). If we eat a snack or meal in under 20 minutes, it's easy to overeat. If you've ever eaten quickly and felt satisfied, only to feel over-stuffed a few minutes later, this could be why! Are you starting to see how taking time to eat slowly is a form of self-care? To eat the right amount to fulfill our hunger and energy needs, and feel our best, it's important to eat slowly. Here are a few simple ways to stretch out your mealtime:

  • Sit down with your family at mealtime rather than tending to cooking and dishes in the kitchen

  • Eat with your non-dominant hand

  • Set a timer for 20 minutes and take the full time to finish your meal

  • Take smaller bites and chew each one thoroughly

  • Start a fun conversation with coworkers or family during meals

  • Notice things about your food with each bite, such as color, texture, taste, smell, etc.

  • You can find more tips and tricks in our mindful eating blog post!

Sleep Impacts our Food Choices

While there may be the occasional night where you have to stay up extra late to get something done or your sleep is cut short because your child had a nightmare, sleep deprivation should not be the norm. If you don't make time for your health now, you'll be forced to do so later, and taking time to get enough sleep is absolutely making time for your health! The average adult between 18 and 60 years of age should aim for seven to nine hours of sleep per night (8). Sleeping any less can increase the risk of weight gain, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, and much more (8). Not to mention, sleep impacts our eating behaviors as well! Research has shown that not getting enough sleep can lead to more snacking, more meals consumed in a day, and a preference for calorie-dense foods (remember we want to reach for those nutrient-dense foods!) (9). Here are a few simple ways to make more time for sleep:

  • Make it a family game to see who can get closest to the amount of sleep they need each night over the holidays - maybe include a small prize for the winner

  • Set an alarm on your phone to remind you 10-15 minutes before you want to turn in for the evening

  • If you're not getting close to seven to nine hours of sleep, try increasing the time you do sleep by 10-15 minutes every couple of weeks

  • Set your phone to automatically turn on "Do Not Disturb" at a certain time every night

  • See if there's anything you can do quickly the night before to allow for more sleep in the morning -prepare overnight oats, pick out your outfit, pack your bag for work, etc.

  • If you've got little ones, put a clock in their room and teach them what time they have to wait for before they come wake to you up (unless there's an emergency)

Physical Activity Impacts our Stress and Digestion

Aside from being beneficial for cardiovascular health, exercise has a positive effect on anxiety and stress (among other mental states) and has been shown to reduce inflammation through a variety of processes (10). We've already talked about the toll stress and inflammation can take on digestion so physical activity is another piece to the stress-reduction puzzle! On top of that, decreasing overall inflammation can help manage some digestive and autoimmune conditions (5). There is also emerging evidence that exercise may have a positive impact on our gut microbiome, which has an impact on our metabolism, immune system, and much more (11)! Here are a few simple ways to make time for exercise/physical activity:

  • Make family walks a holiday tradition - you can even grab some hot cocoa or tea, bundle up, and go see the holiday lights in your neighborhood

  • Create a family-wide holiday exercise challenge that's virtual-friendly -which household can accumulate 10 miles of walking first, who can hold a plank the longest, a prize for each family that exercises 3+ times each week, etc.

  • Park further away from the store when you're out shopping to get some more steps in

  • Start small with 10 or so minutes of exercise per day then add five minutes every few weeks

  • Dance or do some air squats through commercial breaks

  • Set social media app time limits on your phone so you leave time for exercise rather than more scrolling

Wow - we've gone over a lot! Not sure where to start? Don't let paralysis by analysis get the best of you - start small because little by little, a little becomes a lot! I recommend picking one of the tips that sounded like fun to you and find a way to integrate it into your holidays and beyond! There's no need to wait for January 1 - there's nothing magical about that day! You deserve to live your healthiest life so why not start today!? As always, don't hesitate to reach out to a Registered Dietitian. The information provided here is a great place to start, but everyone's nutritional needs look a little bit different. Are you interested in learning how you can benefit from working with a Registered Dietitian? Complete the 1:1 Dietitian Nutrition Coaching Application today! Gretchen will reach out to schedule your complimentary call after you complete the coaching application.


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