Q: I am feeling frustrated because it’s so difficult to determine which foods are causing my digestive symptoms. What’s going on?
A: As a dietitian, I see clients who frequently report being able to eat a food happily one day, and then having that same food cause uncomfortable digestive symptoms the next. Have you ever gone on vacation and found you could enjoy foods that make you feel ill at home? Here’s the reason: How your body responds to a meal is impacted by several factors, including the nutrient balance in the meal, other food choices in the day, the current state of your gut bacteria and—perhaps surprisingly—your stress levels.
Your gut is deeply connected to your mental well-being. Psychological stress can cause digestive symptoms unrelated to specific foods you are eating. It can also alter the balance of bacteria in your gut, creating longer-term issues. Having an imbalance of bacteria in your gut, or “dysbiosis,” can lead to increased bloating and inflammation—symptoms that you may interpret as food intolerance(s). This dysbiosis can create a cycle of mental well-being and gut issues. Cortisol (a stress hormone) may increase in the body, while bacterially produced short-chain fatty acids and serotonin (a happy hormone) may diminish. All of this impacts the nervous system.
Before eliminating healthy plant foods from your diet, ensure that your gut bacteria are well balanced and not contributing to symptoms. Start by committing to a fermented liquid probiotic supplement daily. Begin keeping a food and mental well-being journal to connect stress and digestive symptoms, and then work with an integrative practitioner to assess food tolerance.