New Years Series (4/5): Stress Less

There’s a saying that you can pour the purest golden nectar into a chalice, but if the cup is dirty on the inside, then the quality of the nectar is irrelevant.

When it comes to food and your body, the same is true. You can eat the freshet, high-quality whole foods but if your digestive system is not in good shape, then your ability to process and assimilate the nutrients from your food is severely compromised. This is a key reason why Ayurveda and most other healing systems place such a strong focus on creating and maintaining a healthy gut.

This week, as many people focus on making changes to what they are eating, I am offering a five-part series on simple ways to boost your digestive capacity so that you can more optimally process the healthy foods you are consuming.


Part 4: Stress Less

Adding healthy foods into your diet is only one part of the equation when it comes to achieving good gut health. There’s also some subtraction to be done: namely, reducing the amount of stress you experience on a daily basis.

Remember that despite all its complexities, the body is in many ways a very simple machine. Think back to the caveman days: if a pack of saber-toothed tigers interrupted your lunch, your body would go into self-preservation mode and direct its energy to helping you to flee. It would not be in your best interest for the body to divert energy to digest whatever you had just eaten, as digestion is a very energy-intense process.

Although large furry predators are no longer a daily threat for most of us, the functioning of our nervous system hasn’t changed much. Anytime we experience any form of stress, our body shifts into this same fight-or-flight mode, regulated by the autonomic nervous system. On the flip-side, when we are relatively relaxed and out of a survival state of mind, our body can shift control over to the parasympathetic nervous system, often referred to as the “rest and digest” system.

When I used to work in a corporate setting, I was very aware that my digestion suffered when I was working on stressful projects. I would experience a lot of bloating, stomachaches and other issues that weren’t normal for me. Things would inevitably improve once a deadline passed or a project ended. And like most people under stress, I tended to make poorer food choices when I was stressed, which likely fueled the symptoms I was experiencing. 

Unfortunately, our society has normalized indigestion and other gut issues, and given us a host of over-the-counter “solutions” for them, leading many people to not even think twice about how stress may be affecting their gut. Rather than getting to the root cause of things, we can pop a pill and plow on at the same stressful pace.

Whether or not you actively suffer from gut issues, I encourage you to be mindful of how you take on stress in your own life.  Meditation, yoga and other mind-body modalities can help us to shed the unnecessary we may carry. Making choices to leave our work at the office, turn off our screens by a certain time each evening and other proactive steps can help us find greater work-life balance.

Consciously scheduling in some resting time after meals can be a beneficial step if you’re someone who tends to always be on the go. Spend 15-20 minutes enjoying a book, walking leisurely or enjoying another restful activity. If you do decide to take a nap after a meal, be sure to lay on your left size (this puts the digestive organs in optimal position to keep working while you rest).



Lower the Dimmer Switch on Your Seasonal Stress

Some call it the most wonderful time of the year, others call it the most stressful. The holidays can bring us great cheer, but in our quest to be festive we often find ourselves depleted, between all the parties, family interactions, and indulgence in sugary treats. Add to this short days and longer nights, and pretty soon all you want to do is hibernate like so many creatures are preparing to do this time of year. In this season, or other times where we let stress overtake us, it can be easy to go, go, go at such a pace that we completely use up every last ounce of energy. While this tactic can feel productive in the moment, it can tax both the body and mind in damaging ways that take time to recover from. Think of it like this: if you drive your car until it runs completely out of gas because you're too busy bouncing from appointment to appointment to stop and fill it up, what happens? You end up spending a lot more time on the side of the road dealing with AAA or finding someone to bring some gas to you than you would have if you'd simply taken a couple minutes in the midst of the craziness to simply put some gas – even just a gallon or two – into the tank. 

The same goes for your body and mind: taking time – as little as a minute – to refuel can have lasting an profound effects for your whole day. Anytime we consciously stop the busyness and interrupt our stress, we automatically send the body a signal to take a momentary break from operating in its "fight, flight or flee" mode, where we tend to spend a lot of our waking time especially this time of year. When we are able to do this, we activate our parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for rest, digestion and rejuvenation), which sends powerful signals throughout the body to perform simple maintenance-related tasks that support our health and well-being. 

When we push ourselves to our edge day after day, we often become like the car that's run out of gas - we are more prone to get sick, we become irritable and lacking in holiday cheer, or find ourselves completely depleted and unable to keep up at the pace life demands.


In an ideal world, we might take a couple days to retreat in a season such as this, but given all that our modern lives ask of us, instead of hitting the off switch completely, many of us are simply grateful to have a "dimmer switch" to lessen the intensity of our stress.

Here are four great ways to dim your stress this holiday season, all in 30-minutes or less. Choose the amount of time you have and take a moment to practice being instead of doing. All of these activities are great ways to dim your stress and let the radiant light of your true being shine a little brighter:

1 minute: Set a timer, then close your eyes. Take a full, deep inhalation followed by a long, slow exhalation. Continue until time is up, seeing if you can lengthen each progressive in/out-breath pair. When the timer sounds, take just a moment more to notice the effect this quick practice had on your state of being.

13 minutes: Grab a cushion and listen to my guided recording of one of my personal favorite meditations. I learned this one from Pablo Das, who received it from Dr. Rick Hanson, author of the amazing book Buddha's Brain. I've taught this meditation to many people, and so many of them have credited it for getting them through some pretty tough and dark times. This meditation specifically builds up parts of the brain that help us conquer our feelings of lack or deprivation. So if you're struggling because you feel like you don't have enough – or that you are not enough – this practice is for you! Click here to listen now (or right-click the link to download).

20 minutes: Try a mindful walking practice. Allow yourself to be attentive to each step, feeling as your foot connects with the earth. Bonus points if you sync your steps with your breaths! You could simply take a walk near your home or office or get out into nature for some time away from it all. You can even practice mindful walking when you're out in the hordes doing last-minute holiday errands. Allow yourself to go slow and see what happens.

30 minutes: Break out your yoga mat and enjoy this free Rest and Rejuvenate yoga practice with Jillian Pransky. I had the great good fortune to complete a restorative yoga teacher training with Jillian in October, and she is truly a masterful teacher. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did!