Digestive Troubles? Take a Deep Breath

Cassie Christopher, MS, RDN, Arivale Coach
Cassie Christopher
MS, RDN, Arivale Coach

Digestive distress is a common complaint for many people. Whether it be heartburn, constipation, loose stools, or more severe conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, 60 to 70 million Americans are suffering1.

When searching for solutions, many extreme measures are presented to those looking for relief. Perhaps you’ve thought about trying supplements marketed as the “cure” or an extremely restrictive diet. Or even, dare I say it, the dreaded colon cleanse.

There may be a simpler solution.

Rest and digest

There are two branches to your nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system activates processes associated with “fight or flight” and is triggered as a response to stress. The key to good digestion may be in activating the other branch – your parasympathetic nervous system – affectionately titled the “rest and digest” branch. The parasympathetic system is triggered when you are resting and allows appropriate blood flow to – and therefore functioning of – your digestive organs2.

Unsurprisingly, many Arivale members report eating under stressful conditions. Over 30 percent say they are eating under the influence of stress several times a week or more.

How’s a body to digest while under stress?

Take a breath

In order to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, take a deep breath. Diaphragmatic breathing, where you feel your rib cage expand and your belly rise has been shown to decrease the stress hormone cortisol3Cortisol, a byproduct of fight or flight, can also trigger cravings for high-sugar and high-calorie foods4, potentially creating a new set of digestive issues.

Take a moment right now. Place your hands on your lower ribs, close your eyes, and take a breath that makes your ribs move outward, away from your body. You will notice your belly getting bigger with your breath. You shouldn’t get any movement in your shoulders and little movement in your upper chest. With each inhale and exhale, elongate the length of your breath. You may notice immediate relaxation, or you may not. Either is normal.

Practicing diaphragmatic breathing for a few moments before a meal has the potential to decrease your stress levels and help you digest your food. Even better, consider also practicing slow, diaphragmatic breathing for five to 10 minutes once or twice per day to produce an even bigger shift in the overall balance of your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system and promote relaxation.

Slow down

Taking a breath and relaxing during meal times may have the added benefits of slowing down the entire meal. A complex interplay of hormones communicating with digestive organs and your brain is involved in eating5It can take time for all of the appropriate signals to be relayed, and some experts have suggested it can take as much as 20 minutes from the start of eating until your brain can register fullness6. It’s possible that one reason stress-eating impairs digestion is that the full arsenal of digestive hormones isn’t capable of being deployed.

Slowing down has another benefit – more chewing. Chewing is the front line of digestion. When you thoroughly chew your food, you’re manually cutting your food into smaller pieces so it can be acted on by digestive enzymes, both in your mouth and further along in your digestive tract. Skimping on chewing can mean more work for other digestive organs, and the potential for digestive distress.

Next time you eat, take a moment to assess your state. Are you in “fight or flight” or “rest and digest” mode? Does it take you at least 20 minutes to eat your meal? Are you chewing your food into small bits or swallowing bites whole? Eating with less stress and more mindfulness may have a big impact on your digestion without having to resort to more extreme or invasive measures.

Further reading


  1. Digestive Diseases Statistics for the United States. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-statistics/digestive-diseases. Published November 1, 2014. Accessed May 18, 2018.
  2. Browning KN, Travagli RA. Central nervous system control of gastrointestinal motility and secretion and modulation of gastrointestinal functions. Compr Physiol. 2014;4(4):1339-68.
  3. Ma X, Yue ZQ, Gong ZQ, et al. The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Front Psychol. 2017;8:874.
  4. Epel E, Lapidus R, Mcewen B, Brownell K. Stress may add bite to appetite in women: a laboratory study of stress-induced cortisol and eating behavior. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2001;26(1):37-49.
  5. McCulloch M. Appetite Hormones – Today’s Dietitian Magazine. Today’s Dietitian. http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/070115p26.shtml. Published July 2015. Accessed May 18, 2018.
  6. Boost the health of your holiday buffet. Harvard Health Publishing. Harvard Medical School. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/boost-the-health-of-your-holiday-buffet. Accessed May 21, 2018.