You may have heard that your gut is your second brain. Your mindset and the way you feel can affect the feelings in your gut.
It might sound a little hokey. But it’s actually true. Like…it’s well established in the literature kind of true.
Ever had a nauseous feeling in a certain situation or butterflies when you’re nervous? Anxiety, anger, sadness, happiness, worry….all these feelings actually manifest themselves as physical sensations in your gut.
The brain has a direct affect on your gastrointestinal system because they are intimately connected by your vagus nerve – the longest cranial nerve in your body that travels from the brainstem to the lowest part of your intestines. Think of it like a highway of communication between your brain and gut. And the messaging goes two ways. If your GI system is impaired it can send signals to the brain. And if you brain is troubled it can send signals to the gut. So your GI issues can be the cause or the result of anxiety, stress, worry, depression, etc etc.
Since a large part of this space is devoted to eating disorders/disordered eating, we’re going to focus how how your emotions before/during/after eating can affect the physical sensations you experience in your digestive tract and body.
I wrote a lot about digestive health is this post back in July and went into detail about how eating disorders and disordered eating can actually cause digestive pathology. The rest of this post is going to focus on the psychology of digestive health.
I also mentioned in the above post the concept of functional gut disorders (FGD) and I think it’s important to note that a large majority of people with eating disorders or disordered eating have FGDs, which is a double whammy and makes the recovery process even harder. Sometimes it’s a chicken or the egg question – did the disordered eating cause impaired gut integrity or did digestive issues make someone vulnerable to developing disordered eating or an eating disorder? I’ve definitely seen both. And I think one of the worst things we can do as health practitioners is not inquire about someone’s relationship with food and their body when talking about digestive health – I’ve learned the hard way early on in my practice.
I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty details of digestive health here in this post because my take home point is really this….can we start to explore if it’s our feelings around food that contribute to digestive symptoms versus the food itself?
It’s something called psychosomatic symptoms. Essentially physical symptoms that occur for psychological reasons. So no, it’s not all in your head. It’s a true, physical feeling but what you’re experiencing is rooted in a psychological process. It shouldn’t be dismissed at all. But solving the issue might mean looking beyond the food.
Maybe you don’t have a “full blown” FGD like irritable bowel syndrome or gastric reflux – but this also includes things like bloating, constipation, diarrhea etc. Some of these symptoms can be a normal bodily process. Sometimes they happen on occasion and that’s your body doing its digestive thing. But sometimes these symptoms become frequent and begin to interfere with your life.
Often times those with FGDs and with disordered eating and eating disorders have similar underlying mental health challenges like anxiety, depression, high stress etc etc. These symptoms can also very much negatively impact body image, making the healing process that much more complicated.
Sometimes it is a particular food that might be causing a symptom. I don’t want to portray the message that it’s never about the food. It can be. But a lot of times, there are multiple factors at play – most notably anxiety and stress.
A stressed out mind/body usually leads to a stressed out gut. I have a close friend who was diagnosed with a gluten intolerance about 10 years ago. During that time she was more focused on her body, had disordered thoughts and behaviors around food and was below her natural set point. Years later, she’s now made a full recovery and has been living a very joyful life at peace with food and her body. Recently she began to question that gluten intolerance diagnosis (not that the original diagnosis wasn’t valid, but was it still an issue for her) and wanted to try incorporating it back into her life again. She started in small amounts and what she found is that so far, she feels totally fine.
I give that example not to say her story is the same for everyone else, but to illustrate how, in her case, it wasn’t really solely about the food. Her coming to peace with food diversified her diet – which we know improves gut integrity. She was far more relaxed and less anxious around the eating experience. And she learned, over time, a lot of healthy self care practices to help her live a less stressful life in general. All these things combined, over a long time, made for a more comfortable digestive process.
There is something called a nocebo effect. Meaning if you believe you will experience a certain feeling or sensation when xyz happens to you…you could very well feel/experience that even if whatever happened to you didn’t exert that effect. So in the instance of food, if you believe diary or gluten or sugar or whatever other food causes you to bloat and feel like crap…even if it doesn’t exert that effect on your body, you still might experience those sensations. Your mind is that powerful. Think about the gut brain connection we talked about in the beginning of this post.
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of research on how the power of the mindset has a physiological impact based on our assumptions of the food we are eating.
Imagine two different scenarios for a second.
- You are with good friends on a perfect summer day, feeling carefree and relaxed. You see an ice cream truck and everyone agrees they want ice cream. As you receive your cone and begin eating, you have no hesitations or negative thoughts about this ice cream cone and you bask in sheer enjoyment as you eat this cone.
- You are with good friends on a perfect summer day. You’re having an enjoyable time, but every so often negative thoughts about your body come in. For the most part though you’re able to stay present. Everyone suggests getting ice cream cones. You don’t say much, hoping they’ll decide against cones. Some anxiety hits about what this ice cream cone will do to your body. You push through, going along with the group and order a cone anyway. But the whole time you’re eating the cone, thoughts are running through your head about what it’s doing to your body, and how crappy you are going to feel afterward.
In both scenarios, you’re still eating the same ice cream cone. But because of the gut/brain connection alone, the person in scenario one is most likely going to experience better digestion than the person in scenario two. On a very basic level, your sympathetic nervous system, aka your “fight or flight” system, pulls blood away from the digestive tract. Your parasympathetic system, aka your “rest and digest” system, delivers blood to your digestive tract. You will almost always experience better digestion when you are calm and relaxed.
I’m not saying how you feel physically during and after eating has everything to do with your mindset. But I am saying it plays a large role.
Maybe you do some exploring with foods and how they make you feel. If you think you’ve had a negative reaction to a food or meal, what about creating a more calm and mindful experience around that food and seeing how it makes you feel in a different environment. Do you feel the same? Do you feel different?
Some ways to shift your mindset and make for a more relaxing and enjoyable eating experience
Eliminate distractions so you can focus on enjoying the food itself.
If you have anxiety/stress around certain foods or experiences, practicing visualization around that experience can be helpful. Visualize yourself having a positive experience.
Choose a soothing mantra and repeat it to yourself before, during and after the experience to counter condition potential negative thoughts.
Eat with a good friend or your significant other and focus on being present in the conversation.
Eat slowly and savor your food. What is the texture and taste and smell – these all add to the eating experience.
Take 5-10 deep breaths before, during and after eating. Deep breathing helps stimulate your vagus nerve which counteracts your sympathetic nervous system to decrease anxiety.
I know I myself have experienced the nocebo effect before and over time as I’ve walked my own path with finding peace with food, find that foods I once thought made me feel “bad” actually have no negative impact at all.
Some food for thought hopefully 🙂 Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments!
Inês Calisto says
First of all, thank you for teaching so much once again today.
I totally agree that our minds are very powerful and things are or will turn out the way we believe they will. The same applies to food: if you believe a specific food makes you feel like crap, even if it doesn’t exert that effect on your body, you will feel like crap after eating it.
So, my mantra is visualizing myself having a wonderful experience, eating slowly and savoring every single bite.
However, I would like to leave a question on this matter: I absolutely love Milka whole nuts chocolate but although I always have a positive experience having it, my face always blows with acne. Maybe it’s the chocolate itself causing this? Is there anything I can do to prevent this?
A thousand kisses from the Azores, Portugal
I love visualizing too Ines! I’m not sure what exactly is causing it since I don’t know all the factors around eating the chocolate. It could be the food itself in this instance..I’m not sure. I’d talk to your health care provider. 🙂
I have definitely experienced this. I was diagnosed with IBS as a child and anorexia when I was 14. Throughout the 16 years of my eating disorder my digestion and IBS symptoms got worse and worse. Following a low FODMAP diet helped, but my symptoms were still debilitating. Now, as I have made huge strides into recovery, my IBS has drastically improved. I definitely still have IBS (and now that I have periods again and am producing hormones, there are noticeable periods of IBS flares throughout my cycle), but I have slowly, with the help of my dietitian, adding back in some of the higher FODMAP foods and have been tolerating most really well! I had so many doctors tell me that my gastrointestinal issues were mostly related to my eating disorder, but I did not want to believe them. I wanted a diagnosis that would require medication or physical therapy or a specific food to cut out. Something that would allow me to stay in my eating disorder, but fix my gut. I have friends who are very much stuck in the diet mentality and some who are very disordered who talk about their digestive distress and their lackluster skin and hair. Their answers are always a new cleanse or detox or cutting out gluten (it’s always gluten these days), dairy, sugar, etc. I so badly just want to nudge them in the direction of not cutting out food, but eating it. Nourishing their bodies so their guts have the energy to put into digesting and healing. My hope is that everyone who struggles with EDs and/or disordered eating and exercise addiction can come to some of the realizations that I have.
“I had so many doctors tell me that my gastrointestinal issues were mostly related to my eating disorder, but I did not want to believe them. I wanted a diagnosis that would require medication or physical therapy or a specific food to cut out. Something that would allow me to stay in my eating disorder, but fix my gut.” –> thank you for being so honest Hillary! I know many can relate. I hope many come to see the other side as well <3
I love thjs! I most definitely believe this is true. I am recovering from disordered eating and experience a lot of bloating and discomfort. But, now that i think about it, the bloating and discomfort is far less when i am with family or distracted by studying instead of being anxious over how my body will react to a certain food i have deemed “bad”. Thank you for this post. I love your perspective.
I’m glad you were able to think about it a bit and maybe make a connection – thinking of you in this journey! <3
I love this post.
So much !
I’m a dietitian looking to learn more about the link between digestion, anxiety, stress, and eating disorders, etc….do you have any articles or books you would recommend reading ?
search pubmed! That’s a great resource. Also Marci Evans has lots of podcasts on Eds and GI stuff that are helpful – she’s a wealth of info!
I really appreciated this! I was diagnosed with IBS when I was a freshman in college and tried to do a low FODMAP, GF/DF diet and I was so obsessed with food. I thought I was doing the best thing for my GI system, but really all that stress of meal prepping and missing social events caused me to become isolated and anxious. Now I have dealt with my emotional crap, changed some things about my lifestyle, and reintroduced all foods. I now realize that, while I know if I eat a lot of fiber or a lot of rich food in a day, I won’t feel so great, my body can handle pretty much everything if I let it. But I had to eat normally for awhile to let my digestion sort itself out and I’m so glad I pushed through that initial emotional/physical discomfort. Thanks for this!
Amber @ Bloom Nutrition Therapy says
This is so true! I know I have suffered from chronic gastric reflux in the past. Over the counter meds, prescription and everything in between was absolutely no help! Instead, I started focusing on WHEN I would experience discomfort and I noticed it most occurred early in the morning, before I had even had anything to eat at all. Usually by the time I got to work I was already miserable and didn’t even feel like eating breakfast. What I noticed the most is that my reflux would “act up” on days that I was running late to work. I began realizing this experience was really stressing me out every morning and the stress itself was causing my upset stomach. Once I made better plans to get out the door on time, the reflux symptoms literally disappeared. It’s amazing how much stress can impact everything!
Wow. Thanks for sharing Amber! Taking a step back and looking at the whole picture can be really helpful!
I totally resonate with this. I’ve fully felt the nocebo effect many times in the past when I used to believe gluten was “bad for me” and causing all my “digestion issues”. When I fully made peace with food and fully believde gluten is NOT bad for me, the “gluten intolerance” went away… Mind, gut connection is really powerful I think!
I have experienced nocebo too. can relate!
I can absolutely testify to this effect. When I was in the thick of my disordered eating, I would frequently (multiple times a week) have extreme digestive pain, and was basically always bloated. I thought that it was due to different foods I would eat, so would eliminate more and more, but when I would go back to eating that food, the anxiety I felt around it made the pain return.
Now rarely will get anything close to that pain, even though I will eat basically everything I used to forbid myself . When I do have some sort of pain, it is a good flag to help me think back about when I last ate and what the conditions were so I can keep learning about what works best.
Thank you for sharing Joelle – I know many can relate! I’m so glad you’ve found healing <3
I really believe my mindset around food has a BUG impact on my digestion. I’m in recovery from anorexia and I’ve found when I was in a stressful environment like the hospital my digestion was terrible and my mindset/body image sucked. Keeping in mind positive affirmations and mantras really makes meal times easier both before, during and after. Bloating is not all in my head … it is a real painful experience that happens to me sometimes. However, I can decrease this symptom if I feel calm when going into a meal. Thank you for providing the scientific evidence behind what I am truly living and going through! It helps a lot 🙂❤️
Yes I love how you pointed out that indeed – the symptom is REAL. It’s not in your head. But our mindset can have huge impacts. I’m glad you found it helpful Gemma!
Emily Swanson says
I have completely experienced this; I’ve experienced more of a stomach ache when I start to let the thoughts creep in after dessert or when I’m eating alone. It’s often much better when I’m eating with others or eating slowly and really savoring the flavors instead of thinking about the worry or fear that I have about it; savoring the food and thinking about the nourishment and the gift of food has really changed my body’s reaction to SOOOO many foods. It’s so cool to me how God created us wholistic beings that NEED stable minds and stable bodies and stable souls, and you can’t just have one without the other. The mind gut connection is super awesome to learn about; thank you so much for thinking through and sharing your knowledge about this Robyn; so blessed by this.
thank you for sharing your story Emily! I know it’s helpful for others 🙂
emily vardy says
So true. I’ve heard people say before that if you worry about having a bad trip or a bad experience the first time you do drugs, you’re way more likely to have an awful time. Same kinda thing with food. I know if I’m stressing or focusing on how “bad” a fear food is, I always feel so much more bloated and uncomfortable after eating.
Ha, good analogy. 🙂
Robyn, your writing just eloquently gets the point across. I love it! This now explains why in grad school I had so many GI issues, hello most stressful time of my life, and now almost two years post grad I’m completely normal again. Can’t wait to reshare this! 🙂
Thank you Kelly! Stress plays such a huge role in GI health – can totally relate to grad school stress!
I am definitely in agreement with you on this topic! I think many people just assume that they have gluten or dairy issues if they are bloated one day, then they wait for it to happen in response to these foods in the future.
great point Leanne
Thank you for this post!! This is super helpful for me!
Nicole @ Laughing My Abs Off says
This is SO interesting; thank you for sharing! Davida’s podcast talked about something similar recently, and I found it to make so much sense, yet no one really talks about it. I definitely think that people are too quick these days to overdiagnose themselves with food intolerances when in reality, food intolerances are SO MUCH more rare than that.