Is stress making your food intolerance worse?

Eve Menezes Cunningham believes that that it is and offers some coaching and NLP tips on how to combat the stress and relax.

You probably already know that your food intolerance can send your stress levels soaring. But did you know that your stress could be making your symptoms worse?

'Stress goes to the gut probably more than to any other part of the body,' says Dr Nick Read*, a gastroenterologist, psychotherapist and medical advisor for The IBS Network. 'Food intolerance is quite common but it’s not usually the food that’s the problem but the gut that’s intolerant. So if you’re stressed and your gut has become sensitive, it’s a little bit like going out in the sun and getting sunburned and putting on your shirt. It’s not the shirt that’s the problem but the fact that the skin’s so sensitive.

“Stress affects the body by activating the autonomic nervous system, physiologically. We’ve got two branches to it:

  1. the sympathetic nervous system and
  2. the parasympathetic nervous system.

The parasympathetic branch is what usually helps our digestion. It is activated when we are rested and relaxed. Stress, by going through the sympathetic nervous system, can make the gut more sensitive.'

Dr Reed recommends viewing food intolerance symptoms and any other kind of gut flare up as a cue to examine your life for clues to stress and suggests prioritising getting whatever in your life is causing the stress sorted out. He explains that while you might be tempted to lose yourself in your work if you’ve got a relationship problem, 'something’s got to give and it’s usually in the gut.'

He often asks patients about the length of time they’ve had their food intolerance issue and encourages them to make connections between the timing and what else was going on for them at that same time and leading up to it.

How to combat your stress

While no one’s suggesting you get careless with your dietary restrictions, these coaching and NLP tips will help you make a start in thinking about your own gut reactions to stress as well as offering some suggestions to help you relax:

1. Notice what stress feels like to you.

We all feel it in our body but often, the feeling is so familiar, we don’t learn from it. Instead, we think it’s inevitable and just carry on attempting to ignore it. So take a moment to think about the last time you were stressed. What were you doing? How did it feel? Make the memory of it vivid and pay attention to your body from head to toe.

What physical signs are you aware of as you remember this stressful state? For some people, a headache, heart palpitations or stomach cramps is an early sign. For others, a bad back or old injury might flare up before you’re even conscious of being stressed. And for people with food intolerances, you might find your symptoms feel that much more pronounced.

Stress often changes our eating habits and this might make physical symptoms worse as well. By recognising where you most frequently feel stress in your body, you’ll be better able to notice, in stressful moments, ‘Oh, I feel stressed!’ so you can identify those triggers and nip tension in the bud before it starts screaming for attention via your gut.

2. How else do you know when you're stressed?

What thoughts and feelings are you conscious of? These thoughts might be so familiar to you you’re not even conscious of them just being thoughts as you tell yourself, ‘I can’t do this’/’It’ll never work’ and other far from empowering thoughts. Perhaps you’re aware of feelings of impending doom. Or simply overwhelmed.

It’s worth remembering that one person’s stress and anxiety is another person’s excitement and anticipation. Bruce Springsteen famously spoke of his shaking, sweating and heart pounding with excitement before going out on stage while Carly Simon saw her shaking, sweating and heart pounding as evidence of stage fright.

Is there a way you could reframe the stories you’re telling yourself about these stressful situation and begin to look at things differently? It won’t always be possible but sometimes, you’ll be surprised at how, simply by giving a situation a different label, you can create much more pleasant feelings.

3. Log your symptoms and moods.

You know yourself best. Create an easy, simple way to make a quick note of how your symptoms are each day. After thinking about all your physical symptoms, reflect on the day from an emotional perspective. After a few days, you may start noticing that when your symptoms are worst, you can pinpoint emotional stresses and other aberrations. This doesn’t have to take a long time. Even five minutes a day reviewing your wellbeing can have a major impact.

4. What feels best?

Life shouldn’t just be about avoiding stress. Think about how you’d like things to be. Pinpoint the things that feel best, when your symptoms have been lighter than usual. What was different then? How can you incorporate as many stress-lite days into your life as possible?

Yes, there will always be situations we can’t avoid but you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how easy it is to counter their impact by having lots of relaxing things to look forward to. Learning to relax also means that when stressful situations arise, you’ll be better equipped to handle them.

5. Build on these relaxed feelings.

Think of a time when you felt most relaxed. What were you doing? Where were you? Who were you with? How did you feel?

Again, scan your body from head to toe. What sensations are you aware of in your body? Get to know what relaxation feels like for you. Notice times when these sensations are present and ask yourself if you’re feeling relaxed in the same way you’ve been getting to know your stress signals. The better you get to know this relaxed state, the easier it will be to build on it.

6. What thoughts and feelings are you most aware of?

Notice the thoughts you’re thinking in this relaxed state. What feelings are you aware of? How can you increase your likelihood of thinking relaxed thoughts and feeling happy every day? What small changes can you make to your routine to maximise your chances of feeling more relaxed?
7. What helps you feel relaxed?

Take a pen and paper and list everything that pops into your head. What makes you feel most relaxed when you’re alone? At home with loved ones? Out and about? On holiday? At work? Working out? Jot down several ideas for each question and note additional thoughts, too. We’re all different and while yoga might be great for your best friend, it might be the last thing you’d want to do. Equally, working hard may be what gets you into your zone while others look at your job wondering how you manage. Get to know yourself and make time for these things.

8. Thinking about the day ahead.

What in your schedule triggers some stress? How can you eliminate as many of these things as possible? Are there things you can delegate? Might there even be items you can cancel altogether? What about the things you know will relax you? How can you create more space for these?

9. When stress is unavoidable, how can you best support yourself?

Everything from moving house, dealing with the end of a relationship or illness to starting a new job, dealing with certain people or even getting the kids ready for school comes with a certain level of stress.

Where stress is unavoidable in your life, think of ways to manage it so you’re less impacted by it. What has helped you through similarly stressful times? When you remember a situation you got through, remind yourself what helped. Build in as much support as possible for this current situation. 

10. Experiment with your schedule.

Notice, as you flick through the pages, which items raise your stress levels even thinking about them. These are stresses that you can prepare for. Take a few moments to schedule in something to relax you to counter every one of these stresses. It may feel self indulgent but by looking after your stress levels, your health and wellbeing will become so much better, you may even find you become more efficient than ever.

Visit Eve online at her website to find out more about telephone coaching and NLP.

First published in November 2011

* Ed: You might also be interested to read a serious of articles by Professors Nick Read and Jonathan Brostoff on the role played by the mind versus that played by a purely physiological inability to tolerate a food. See Allergy: a clash of Cultures (Professor Nick Read) ; IBS: another perspective (Professor Jonathan Brostoff); Allergy: a clash of cultures part 2 (Professor Nick Read)


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