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Social Distancing’s Effect On Your Gut Health, Explained By Experts

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As many Americans round out their second month of social distancing, you may have noticed that your digestion is less than stellar. Experts say the problem goes beyond the quaribeans — social distancing's effect on your gut health has to do with your schedule and stress levels, too.

“When we are stressed, the relationship between our gut microbiome and body changes,” says Dr. Zaoping Li, M.D., Ph.D, the center director and division chief of the clinical nutrition program at the University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. Li explains that the neurotransmitter serotonin — which helps regulate mood, appetite and digestion, sleep, memory, and sexual desire — is directly linked to your microbiome, or the bacteria, viruses, and other little nasties that live in your GI tract. Pre-rona, your gut was likely happily chugging along, feeding on good bacteria from lots of fruits, veggies, and stability. Now, it’s living off steady meals of Cheetos and doomscrolling.

“The emotions we’re all feeling right now are really valid, and you want to be aware of that,” says Megan Elizabeth Riehl, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist and the clinical director of the GI Psychology program at the University of Michigan. “You may be feeling extra hungry, you may not feel hungry at all.”

Combine adapting to an abrupt change in routine with concern about the physical, emotional and economic implications of the pandemic, and you’ve got the perfect formula for subpar digestion. Your GI tract operating in crappy (pun intended) conditions can impact the rest of your health, too. Because social distancing may be in place for quite some time, it helps to learn why your gut is behaving the way it is.

How What You Eat Impacts Your Gut Health

Though early reports of food shortages turned out to be overblown, many people are minimizing their grocery trips in order to practice social distancing. Beans, pastas, and other non-perishables — including beloved artificially flavored comfort foods — are likely in more of your meals than usual. The high amounts of salt or sugar in most processed foods can keep the good bacteria your digestive microbiome needs from getting the nutrients it needs to do its job well. Without access to fresh fruits and vegetables, your gut can’t strike the perfect bacterial balance that help your food digest at the right rate. It’s a literal one-two punch to the gut.

Li explains that frozen fruits and vegetables will feed your gut bacteria just as well as their fresh counterparts. Beans, too, are a good source of plant protein and fiber, which helps your GI tract run, ahem, regularly.

Your Quarantine Schedule Also Affects Digestion

Staying up all night stress-baking knowing you can sleep in? It might feel indulgent, but your body is probably anything but pleased.

“Each cell and each organ has its own clock,” Li explains. “And our body only works well when all of it is operating in the same time zone.” The Animal Crossing-inflected all-nighters aren’t just a downer for productivity, but for your poop. “When we go to bed late, in the early hours of the morning and then sleep ‘til noon, that’s ruining the body’s natural metabolism,” Li says.

Stress Can Hurt Your Microbiome

Eating nothing but fruits and vegetables and lean proteins and still finding yourself in the bathroom seven times a day? Even with a GOOP-approved menu, feeling anxious about the state of the world can throw your digestive tract off. Stress changes the way food physically moves through your GI tract, making things go faster, slower, or with more vigorous contractions of your digestive organs. Stomach aches, changes in bowel functions, more frequent diarrhea, constipation, bloating, nausea, and heartburn are all GI symptoms of stress, says Riehl.

Because both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nerve systems — think fight or flight, then calming down afterwards — work with the enteric nervous system, which regulates digestion, you could say all your emotions pass through your GI tract.

Riehl says our brains are working overtime to process and transition to this new way of life, which in and of itself is stressful. Feeling afraid to leave your house or to unpack groceries at home before washing them outside would have felt irrational pre-pandemic. Today, “those aren’t catastrophic thoughts anymore,” she says. If the body is stressed enough to enter fight or flight, which those kinds of thoughts might do, it will focus all of its energy into squaring off against perceived threats. That means there’s not enough internal energy left to help your food get where it needs to go.

How To Help Your Gut Health While Practicing Social Distancing

We don’t yet know when this period of social distancing will end, which itself is stressful. But that doesn’t mean we have to let this lingering unknown irritate our gut indefinitely. While the foods people normally buy may be less accessible right now, Emily Haller, M.S., R.D.N., a dietitian in the GI Nutrition program at Michigan Medicine, says the general guidelines of what constitutes a well-balanced meal haven’t changed — vegetables, lean proteins, and smaller portions of oils or fats, fruits, and whole grains.

That said, “vilifying specific food during this time is ... can increase stress and guilt around food and eating,” Haller adds. “Food can and should be joyful and bring comfort, especially during a time when many joys and comfort have been stripped away.”

Since what and how much we eat can directly impact our energy and mood, Haller recommends using eating as a way to get in touch with your mood. Try eating slowly without screens around you. Engage your senses by noticing the colors, smells, sounds, textures, and flavors of each meal. If you take more time to appreciate the food before you, you’ll also notice the effects food has on your feelings and emotions, she says. Just like any other mindfulness practice, mindful eating can help calm your thoughts, which can help your tummy troubles, too.

So if gazing lovingly at a carefully stirred pot of beans feels good, know that it might actually keep your bowels flowing freely long after you eat it, too.

Experts cited:

Dr. Zaoping Li, M.D., Ph.D

Megan Elizabeth Riehl, Psy.D.

Emily Haller, M.S., R.D.N.