gut-reactions1If you’ve ever heard the expression “My gut reaction to that is…” it should come as no surprise that your gut plays a significant role in both your physical and emotional health. In fact, the gastrointestinal (GI) tract is chock-full of chemical receptors that affect not only digestion, of course, but also mood and feeling.

“The gut is a place where emotions as well as food are processed,” says Victor S. Sierpina, MD, author of The Healthy Gut Workbook.

Stress can wreak havoc on your digestive tract. Similarly, what you eat and drink (too many mochachinos, anyone?) can increase your stress, causing a chain reaction of physiological and emotional effects such as irritability, anxiety, jitteriness, and rapid heartbeat.

When you’re feeling stressed, your cortisol and insulin levels increase, which not only makes you hungry but also affects how well your body processes food and absorbs nutrients, Sierpina explains. The frenetic pace most of us live at nowadays doesn’t help, he adds. “We eat on the run,” he says, “and we don’t always make the healthiest choices.

“If you’re in a hurry, you’re not paying attention to what you’re eating,” Sierpina continues. Poor food choices—foods that are fried or high in sugar and saturated fats, for example—can lead to annoying problems such as constipation, diarrhea, heartburn, and gas but also to more serious conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and some cancers. What’s the answer? For starters, become mindful about what—and how—you choose to eat, says Sierpina. In Spain, for example, people take dining seriously, he notes. “Eating is a ritual and a time to socialize with family and friends, and it is usually followed by taking time to rest,” he explains. That mindful approach not only leads to healthier food choices—think fish, lean meat, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables—but also to less stress and more enjoyment in life.

Taking care of yourself away from the table will help you manage the stress that can send your gut into overdrive. “Get enough sleep (eight to 10 hours a night), adequate aerobic exercise, and practice some form of mind-body technique such as meditation, yoga, or tai chi,” Sierpina advises. Solitude, pleasurable hobbies, spiritual practice, and having a strong social network are also ways to reduce the stress that can have you reaching for another Twinkie.

“Think of your body as a backpack,” Sierpina says. “Stress is like a rock. If you add a rock every day to your backpack, soon you won’t be able to carry it. The same is true for a body under stress.”

For a quick stress-relieving remedy you can practice any time, Sierpina recommends this deep deep-belly breathing exercise to help soothe both your mood and your gut: Imagine that your lungs are in your belly. As you take a deep breath, let your belly expand naturally, slowly. Think “soft belly.”

As you breathe, allow each breath to fill the lungs in your soft belly. Keep the belly soft as it expands with each breath. As you exhale, squeeze the air out by pretending your belly button is going inward as if to touch your spine. Ride the waves of these deep breaths for a few minutes and note how relaxed you become. If worries or other thoughts distract you, return your attention to your breath.

Anchor your “mental attention” in the breath and let the soft belly breathing create a calm, peaceful feeling throughout your system and throughout your day.

By living with less stress and more attention, says Sierpina, you’ll soon be able to “quit your bellyaching.”