How Negative Body Image Can Mess Up Your Digestion (& What To Do)

Hey everyone! I'm thrilled to have Holistic Nutritionist and Disordered & Emotional Eating Coach, Rachel Molenda, on the blog today to share some really valuable information around body image and the potential effects it can have on stress and digestion. Over to you Rachel!

You may not naturally think there is a connection between negative body image and your digestion. After all, we’re talking about how the thoughts that we think could potentially have an impact on our body’s physiology. But in fact, there is a huge link; so much so, that you may even want to start being a bit more pro-active in taking steps to improve your body image so you can support your digestion and your overall health.

What is a negative body image? 

A negative (or distorted) body image refers to an unrealistic view of how someone sees their body. We begin forming our perception of our body image (i.e. attractiveness, acceptability and functionality) in early childhood. The way we perceive our body continues to change and evolve as we age and as we become more receptive to messages in the media and the things our peers, family members and friends say to us. Various personality traits such as perfectionism and self-criticism can also bring upon the development of a negative body image. 

Ultimately, that negative body image manifests into stress in the body.

How does it impact digestion?

Stress can take a huge toll on the body. It’s said that 70-90% of hospital visits are actually related to stress in some shape or form. But stress can impact our digestion especially as a result of it activating the “fight or flight” (sympathetic nervous system) response in the central nervous system. This “fight or flight” mode is very much a primitive defense mechanism to save us from oncoming dangers. In the past, it helped us to flee from being chased by a bear, whereas now, more and more people are finding themselves in this state of stress as a result of their negative thought process or upsetting things they are exposing themselves to.

During this response, digestion shuts down entirely by decreasing the blood flow to the abdomen and secretions needed for effective digestion. We might see food not being entirely broken down and absorbed properly as a result of food moving too quickly through the system and see things like nutritional deficiencies as a result. 

With this heightened state of stress, we may also see our good gut bacteria being wiped out. Good gut bacteria helps people to fight off viruses, digest food properly, assimilate nutrients and produce “feel good” neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. Overtime, this can lead to a weakened immune system, nutritional deficiencies and anxiety and depression.

The way that stress reacts in the body is by increasing the release of cortisol and insulin in the body. And here’s the real kicker; when these hormones are released in the body, they actually tell your body to store weight and fat. Why? Because again, the stress response is a primitive response that prepares our bodies in the event that we are left stranded without access to food.

So while you might think that fixating your [negative] thoughts on your body and exerting control over other factors in your life (like food) might be helping you, it’s actually doing the exact opposite. Instead of stressing over what our body looks like, there are a lot of things we can do instead to support our body image, digestion and overall health.

What can we do to support our body image?

When it comes to establishing a positive body image and a healthy relationship with your body overall, it’s important to remember that this isn’t something that just happens overnight. It’s not like you just wake up one day, decide you're Beyonce and all is well in the world.

This is something that takes practice and will come with time, but you can get started with some of the suggestions below:

1. Recognize when a self-sabotaging thought isn’t serving you and release it

One of the ways we can become more in tune with our thoughts is by sitting in stillness with them, as we do in meditation. By doing  so, you’ll be able to gain a greater awareness of your internal dialogue and identify the thoughts that aren’t serving you. You’ll know if they aren’t serving you if they don’t make you feel good. While we might not be able to stop these thoughts, we can change the way we apply meaning to them and bring them to life. Moving forward, when they come in, address them and acknowledge that they’re there, and then say goodbye to them, as if they were a passing train. Again, this will take time and practice and if anything, it may help you realize how often your mind is dipping into that negative zone and what influences in your life might be triggering that.

2. Develop a go-to affirmation or replacement thought

On top of releasing these negative thoughts, we can also develop a go-to positive affirmation or a replacement thought to uplift us when those negative self-sabotaging thoughts come sneaking in. An example of this might be when you’re trying on a pair of jeans that you haven’t worn in a while that feel more snug than they used to. You might find yourself thinking thoughts like “I feel so fat” “I need to lose weight” or “I need to have more self-control.” But what if we replaced that with a positive thought like “These legs of mine are strong and allow me to move my body in a way that makes me feel awesome!” That’s an example of a replacement thought. An affirmation might look like “The way may body looks has nothing to do with my value or worth.”

3. Surround yourself with more body positivity

One of the best things I’ve done for myself and that I recommend to my clients is to fill their lives with more body positivity! What this means is to unfollow all of the people or brands in your social media that don’t make you feel very good, and to fill them with people and brands that do! There are a lot of body positivity advocates in the sphere today that serve as great reminders when serving through your newsfeed that you are enough and so perfect just the way you are! Body positivity is also about the language that you use when you talk to yourself and others; making a point to not engage in diet culture talk, comment on someone else’s weight gain or weight loss and using loving language towards yourself (as you would when speaking to a friend or loved one).

What have you found to be most effective when it comes to supporting your body image? Let us know in the comments below.

Rachel Molenda is a Toronto-based Certified Holistic Nutritionist (CNP) and Disordered & Emotional Eating Coach who helps women heal their relationship to food and their body, ultimately assisting them in unlocking their true potential and finding freedom in their life. With each client she works with, Rachel brings her non-restrictive, anti-diet, whole foods (or #RealAssFood) approach to help people adopt healthy sustainable food and lifestyle practices so they can start living a fulfilling life free of restrictive rules. Rachel works one-on-one with individuals online, as well as in workshop settings in-person, where she teaches people how to get to the root of what’s causing their emotional or disordered eating with the intention of healing their relationship with food, their body and themselves.

You can find her online @rachelmmolenda on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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