What happens? Well, several things. Your sympathetic nervous system directs the body to produce more cortisol, a stress hormone. Your muscles tense. Your heart starts beating fast. Your blood pressure rises. Your blood sugar goes up. Your appetite increases, especially for sugary, high-carb foods. Your thyroid becomes sluggish, meaning your metabolism slows down. Your digestion shuts off. And your immune system is compromised. With all of this going on, especially having a digestive system offline, how can your body process that colorful, nutrient-dense dinner you prepared? In short, it can’t, or at least not fully and completely.
When you’re stressed, your body is triggered to protect itself, preserve energy, and store more fat, not digest and assimilate the nutrients in food. Plus your senses are impaired, so your food just doesn’t taste as good, and you don’t experience as much pleasure from your food as when you’re relaxed.
Over time, all of this stress doesn’t just hamper the digestive system, it can seriously damage it, weakening the lining of your gut, increasing its permeability (commonly referred to as leaky gut), and harming your microbiome, the collection of bacteria that help break down food.
Crazy, right? All that’s happening because of those anxious thoughts about food. When most people think of sources of stress, they think of losing a job, financial challenges, an accident or injury, a health concern, or the loss of a loved one. Or more everyday situations like a tight deadline at work or a driver swerving into your lane on the highway. We don’t realize that what’s going on in our minds–I’m going to gain weight, I need to change my body, I should eat less carbs–can trigger our stress response, too.
Your body reacts with exactly the same cascade of hormonal changes whether it’s an event or a thought that sets off the stress response alarm. And to make things worse, it doesn’t matter whether your thoughts are true or not. As long as you believe them, then you can create a stress response.