What Happens When You Eat While Stressed Out: Bloating?

Each week, holistic nutritionist Joy McCarthy tells us about a common health problem she’s seen in her practice and how she came to a solution.

This Week’s Client: Stephanie, law clerk, busy mom of two, multi-tasker extraordinaire

The Problem: When Stephanie eats she complains that the food feels like it’s “stuck” in her gut. Her exact words are: “Every meal, about 10 minutes after eating, it feels like I have a brick in my tummy — like nothing is moving and I feel so full, even if I don’t overeat.”

This is actually a very common problem with varying causes: Food moves slow as a snail through the gut, leaving one feeling full and bloated, and which many refer to as just feeling “fat.” Stephanie has had digestive issues in the past — yo-yoing from constipation to diarrhea — and now her gut felt like it was at a complete stand still.

The first time I saw Stephanie, I had her do my “transit time” test, which is an excellent way to determine your gut health. It’s fairly simple: Eat some raw or roasted beets (not pickled) and check how long it takes before it comes out the the other end. You will know, because your bowel movement will be red. If it’s longer than 24hours, then things are moving slowly, which can indicate anything from a sluggish thyroid to lack of exercise, poor food combining, allergies and more.

However, rather than suggesting a multitude of tests, it made sense to start simple.


Stephanie admitted to me that she was a “stress ball.” Her morning consisted of getting the kids ready for school and grabbing whatever was in the kitchen from a granola bar to a package of instant oatmeal and eating on the run. Lunch was always at her desk and eaten while staring at the computer. Dinner was in front of the television, after the kids were in bed. Does this sound familiar?

It was my opinion that stress was the likely cause of her slow-moving gut. Stress affects the nerves of the digestive system and can upset the intricate balance of digestion. Some people experience a slowed digestion along with bloating, pain and constipation, while others may need to frequently empty their bowels and the stools may be more loose and watery. When you are stressed, your sympathetic nervous system kicks in (you are likely familiar with “fight or flight” mechanism?) and when this happens digestion takes a backseat.

These were my recommendations for Stephanie:

1. Avoid doing chores, watching TV or eating on the go.
Make time for meals. Sit down and literally think how every morsel of food is nourishment for your body.

2. Chew food until almost liquid. This forces you to be more mindful, moves your body into a more relaxed state and eases the digestive process. Your stomach does not have teeth!

3. Take an extra 15 minutes once a week to plan meals for the week. This is particularly helpful when you know you are going to be rushed.

4. Write a grocery list and keep it on your fridge.

But before I began teaching Stephanie about eating healthier foods, I just wanted to get her to focus on these four tips. After 21 days of consistently following this advice, her digestion had greatly improved and her transit time had improved immensely. Now we are working on getting good nutrient-dense foods into her diet and she’s even eating leafy greens!

Written by Joy McCarthy, Registered Holistic Nutritionist and Health Coach of
Joyous Health.

Please note: This advice is not meant to treat or diagnose, please consult a certified practitioner or your family doctor for any serious health issues.