Most of us are oblivious to our stress. We live it, breath it, and walk alongside it—daily. In response, we’ve become desensitized to our stack of stressors (work deadlines, social media dings, and endless to-dos). But here’s the kicker: stress isn’t just chipping away at our mental well-being. It’s also taking a hit on our hormones, immune health, and digestive system. In turn, it’s depleting our bodies of essential nutrients! With that in mind, could your hectic lifestyle be causing nutrient deficiencies? Is stress compromising your balanced diet? With digestion in mind, we’re exploring the link between stress and gut health. Plus, get our top tips for improving nutrient absorption.

Edie Horstman

Edie Horstman

Edie is the founder of nutrition coaching business, Wellness with Edie. With her background and expertise, she specializes in women’s health, including fertility, hormone balance, and postpartum wellness.

Stress: A (Full Body) Repercussion

Spoiler alert: stress isn’t just a siloed tap on the shoulder. It triggers an entire chain of reactions. From your brain to your belly, stress disrupts key functions. Most notably? Sleep, digestion, immune health, and hormones. In other words, stress causes a cascade of physiological responses. Its pervasiveness leaves no bodily system untouched. If you’ve ever thought stress simply resides in your head—it doesn’t. It’s a full-body experience that throws your entire well-being out of sync.

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Is all stress bad?

No, not all stress is harmful! Of course, excessive stress is detrimental to our health and longevity, but moderate levels are actually beneficial. In fact, it can be the catalyst that pushes us beyond our comfort zones. This type of stress, often referred to as “eustress,” motivates us to achieve goals, improve our performance, and adapt to new situations. This good stress is akin to adrenaline that fuels competitive athletes—or the excitement that accompanies starting a new job. Ultimately, it helps us grow.

The Gut-Brain Connection, Explained

We often think of stress as an isolated emotional burden. But as mentioned, it’s far from that. Stress has a full-body ripple effect—particularly on our digestive system. When we’re stressed or anxious, the brain sends signals to the gut, causing distress. Likewise, when the gut is unhappy (i.e., from something you ate), it sends signals to the brain. This affects everything from mood and temperament to overall cognitive function. In essence, the gut and the brain are a two-way street.

Claire Zinnecker_stress and gut health

The Gut—Your Body’s Second Brain

Did you know the gut is often dubbed our “second brain?” That’s right. It’s not just there to digest food. Rather, it’s a hub of activity, where millions of nerves and chemicals are constantly communicating. This second brain can influence our mood, decision-making, and overall well-being. When you have a gut feeling about something, it’s probably not just a hunch—it’s your second brain talking! To no surprise, what clouds your gut’s ability to communicate with your brain (and vice versa)? Stress.

Slicing tomatoes.

How does stress negatively impact your gut?

When we’re stressed, our brain sends signals to release cortisol into the bloodstream. And this has various effects on our gastrointestinal (GI) tract:

  1. Changes in intestinal permeability. First and foremost, chronic stress is associated with increased intestinal permeability. Aka, leaky gut. This can allow harmful substances to pass through the intestinal lining and enter the bloodstream, potentially triggering inflammation and other GI woes.
  2. Altered gut motility. Cortisol can also influence the movement of food through our digestive tract. In some cases, stress may lead to increased gut motility, resulting in diarrhea or frequent bowel movements. In other cases, stress may slow down gut motility—leading to constipation.
  3. Reduced digestive secretions. Last but not least, cortisol decreases our production of stomach acid and digestive enzymes (very necessary for breaking down food!). Therefore, a reduction in digestive secretions compromises both digestion and nutrient absorption.
Woman drinking water in bed_stress and gut health

Digestive Enzymes: The Key to Nutrient Absorption

Speaking of digestive enzymes, we need these to break down food. Without enough of these enzymes, digestion goes haywire. Unfortunately, stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) inhibit the production of digestive enzymes. The result? Impaired ability to break down proteins, fats, and carbs. This leads to discomfort, bloating, and nutrient malabsorption.

Are nutrient deficiencies a consequence of chronic stress?

Yes—even in the presence of a balanced diet. But repercussions of impaired enzyme secretion extend beyond digestive discomfort. When we can’t efficiently break down macronutrients into their constituent parts (vitamins, minerals, and amino acids,) we’re predisposed to nutrient deficiencies. And without proper levels of everything from B vitamins to magnesium, our immunity, hormones, and metabolism suffer.

Roxana_stress and gut health

How to Know If You’re Experiencing Nutrient Deficiencies

Ultimately, nutrient deficiencies manifest differently for each of us. That said, keep an eye out for these signs.

General symptoms:

  • Fatigue or low energy
  • Weakness
  • Poor immune function (frequent colds or infections)

Specific symptoms:

  • Iron deficiency: Pale skin, dizziness, shortness of breath, brittle nails.
  • Vitamin D deficiency: Bone pain, muscle weakness, frequent infections.
  • Vitamin B12 deficiency: Numbness or tingling in hands and feet, balance problems, memory issues.
  • Calcium deficiency: Muscle cramps, weak or brittle nails, easy fracturing of bones.
  • Magnesium deficiency: Muscle twitches, cramps, mental disorders, fatigue.
  • Vitamin A deficiency: Poor vision, especially in low light, dry eyes, skin issues.
  • Vitamin C deficiency: Easy bruising, bleeding gums, slow wound healing.

Dietary clues:

  • Consistently poor diet lacking in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.

Medical testing:

  • Blood tests can confirm specific nutrient levels and help identify deficiencies.

Think you may have a nutrient deficiency (or a few)? Chat with your healthcare provider about bloodwork.

savory yogurt egg bowl_stress and gut health

How to Support Optimal Nutrient Absorption

So, how can you improve your body’s ability to absorb nutrients? Below are seven dietary strategies to incorporate.

Eat a balanced diet.

This goes without saying, but consuming a diverse array of nutrient-dense foods ensures you’re getting a wide range of vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients. Aim to include plenty of fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats in your meals.

Pair nutrients with intention.

Some nutrients enhance the absorption of others when consumed together. For example, vitamin C can increase the absorption of iron from plant-based sources, while vitamin D aids in the absorption of calcium. Pairing foods rich in complementary nutrients can maximize absorption efficiency.

Don’t skimp on healthy fats.

Fats play a crucial role in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) as well as certain phytonutrients. Incorporate sources of healthy fats—avocados, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and fatty fish—into your diet to support nutrient absorption.

Optimize gut health.

Of course, a healthy gut is essential for efficient nutrient absorption. Consume probiotic-rich foods (we love homemade yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi) to promote a balanced gut microbiota. Additionally, include prebiotic foods (onions, garlic, bananas, and whole grains) to nourish beneficial gut bacteria.

Thoroughly chew your food.

Properly chewing your food breaks it down into smaller particles, making it easier for digestive enzymes to access and digest nutrients. Take your time to chew each bite thoroughly, allowing for better nutrient absorption in the digestive tract.

Consider digestive enzymes.

If you have digestive issues or suspect impaired enzyme secretion, consider incorporating digestive enzyme supplements. These can help break down macronutrients into absorbable forms, especially during times of stress or digestive imbalance.

Limit anti-nutrients.

Some foods are known to contain anti-nutrients (compounds that can interfere with nutrient absorption). Examples include phytates in grains and legumes, which can bind to minerals like iron and zinc, and oxalates in certain veggies—which can inhibit calcium absorption. However, soaking, sprouting, or fermenting these foods can help reduce anti-nutrient levels and enhance nutrient absorption.

Woman journaling.

5 Lifestyle Tips to Enhance Nutrient Absorption

Good news! Through mindful eating, stress management techniques, and targeted nutritional interventions, it is possible to enhance nutrient absorption and promote vitality from within. Remember, nurturing your gut isn’t just about what you eat but how you nourish your body and mind.

1. Eat a Balanced Diet With Minimally-Processed Foods

  • Why it helps: Whole foods—like fiber-forward produce, protein, and healthy fats—provide essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that promote better nutrient absorption.
  • Tips: Incorporate a variety of colorful vegetables and fruits to ensure a wide range of nutrients. As mentioned, probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut can also aid digestion and improve gut health.

2. Stay Hydrated

  • Why it helps: Proper hydration is crucial for nutrient absorption and metabolic processes. Water helps dissolve vitamins and minerals, making them more accessible to your body.
  • Tips: Aim to drink at least eight glasses of water a day. You can also include herbal teas and water-rich foods, like cucumbers and watermelon.

3. Manage Stress Through Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques

  • Why it helps: Chronic stress can negatively impact digestion and nutrient absorption. Mindfulness and relaxation techniques can help lower stress levels and improve overall digestion.
  • Tips: Practice yoga, meditation, or deep-breathing exercises—daily. Even a few minutes of mindfulness can significantly reduce stress!

4. Prioritize Movement

  • Why it helps: Exercise improves digestion and enhance the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. It also helps reduce stress levels, thanks to endorphins!
  • Tips: Engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise, most days of the week. Find activities you love—a solo walk with a podcast, pilates, strength training, cozy cardio, swimming, etc.

5. Maintain a Consistent Sleep Schedule

  • Why it helps: Quality sleep is essential for reducing stress and allowing the body to repair and regenerate, which includes improving digestive efficiency and nutrient absorption.
  • Tips: When possible, aim for 7-9 hours of sleep. Establish a regular bedtime routine and create a restful environment (by minimizing exposure to screens and maintaining a cool, dark room).

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