Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we are into our second week of Shelter-in -Place. With so much isolation, and change from our normal routines, it’s hard to find someone who isn’t feeling stressed. Now more than ever, what we eat is essential. We all want to keep our immune systems strong, and nutrition plays a vital role. Stress can affect our immune function, food choices, hormones, neurotransmitters, and digestive health. But can what we eat also help?
By now, you may have heard of the stress hormone cortisol. In short-term stress, cortisol actually can protect the immune system by decreasing inflammation. But when that stress continues, the immune system can get tired, and make you more susceptible to getting sick.
Long-term stress also affects neurotransmitters and can reduce those that make us feel good like dopamine and serotonin, while decreasing GABA which helps us feel calm. This change in neurotransmitter production can increase both depression and anxiety. Did you know our gut microbes also produce these neurotransmitters? Did you know what you eat can have an impact on them?
Stress can definitely make bloating, nausea, pain, and heartburn felt more easily. Do you feel like your previously controlled digestive symptoms have suddenly returned? If you already struggle with digestive discomfort, stress can make it feel even worse. Stress also affects how quickly food moves through your digestive tract, and can lead to constipation, diarrhea, and a change in the microbes that live in the gut. Research shows a greater variety of microbes in our gut, may improve our immune system.
If you’re like so many of my clients, stress affects what you eat. Many tell me they’re stress-eating, while others have completely lost their appetites. Since nutrition is so important for immune function, how should we be dealing with this during such a difficult time?
- Allow yourself some comfort foods – This is a time to be good to yourself, but just don’t go too wild. Enjoy that treat, or special meal, just balance it with other healthy foods that will keep your immune system strong. If you like to bake, like I do, then eat a little of it, and send a package of love to someone else. I have boxes of baked goods on the way to my adult kids right now.
- Eat regularly to keep your brain fueled and hunger controlled. If you have no appetite, eat small meals that are easier to handle like protein shakes, smoothies, or soups. Going too long without eating can lead to feeling worse.
- Eat only when you’re hungry. If you find yourself eating for comfort instead of hunger, find something else you can enjoy doing. Make a list of activities and try those. Instead of snacking try reading, taking a walk, or contacting a friend. Don’t eat in front of the TV. Keep your snacks and Netflix separate.
- Don’t follow fad diets. This is not a time to limit any food groups. Healthy carbohydrates are the foods that provide fuel for your brain, and a variety of nutrients that are important for gut health and a strong immune system.
- Discover what helps you relax – Take a walk, meditate, do some yoga, take a hot bath, light candles, or listen to music. Reducing stress will help you feel better, so you can make improved choices for your well-being.
- Connect! Reach out to friends and family through programs like FaceTime or Zoom, to bring yourself closer to them. I provide virtual appointments all over the country, and can help you with ideas on what foods to keep at home, meal planning, updates on low FODMAP eating, or other strategies for digestive discomfort. Let me help you eat well and stay healthy, while we’re all staying home. Take a deep breath, we can do this together.
Kim Kulp, RD
Gut Health Nutrition Expert
I am a registered dietitian that specializes in gut nutrition to improve digestive and mental health. I help my clients harness the power of nutrition to support their bodies delicate ecosystem, so they can feel better. I have seen hundreds of lives transformed through the power of nutrition. I want to help you harness the gut health connection in your life so you can get “back to good!”
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