Links between Back to School Stress & Digestive Problems

Written by Denise Tam, Holistic Nutritionist

A recent survey conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong showed that of those surveyed nearly a quarter of students have symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) since the start of the pandemic, while 10% of parents displayed similar symptoms. Some of these symptoms included abdominal pain, diarrhea and bloating which can affect one's ability to learn and work.

What is more worrying is that 50% of students and 20% of parents showed signs of mild to severe depression while 40% of students showed mild to severe signs of anxiety. The study also suggested a high relevance between digestive distress and emotions with respondents with moderate to severe IBS symptoms obtaining a higher score in PHQ-9 and GAD-7, assessments widely used to screen for the presence and measure the severity of depression and anxiety.

“Serotonin in the brain affects our mood and gut. People with symptoms of stomach disorders, IBS, or bowel diseases will also have a higher risk of depression and anxiety, and vice versa.

- Professor Justin Che Yuen WU, Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Department of Medicine and Therapeutics, CU Medicine

It has been proven that our gut, also known as ‘the second brain’ can directly influence our emotions and thus our mental health. Going back to school is a stressful time with many changes and pressures that are hard to avoid. So it is important to take into account stress levels, emotions and ensure your body has the right nutrients to handle these changes and stressors. See my nutrition tips below.

Below are four stress management tips to include in your back to school routine. 

1. Create consistent routines and schedule in rest and play 

As humans we thrive on consistency and a schedule. In general, we like to know what we can expect. As much as it is important to set a schedule for your bed and meal times, it is equally important to schedule in times of rest and play.
There are multiple studies showing that through play, children can grow their conceptual abilities, knowledge of the world and abstract thought. At the same time, this is an opportunity for you and your child to relax and wind down.

2. Deep belly breathing & exercise 

It is known that exercise can release our feel good hormones - serotonin. After sitting in school or at work all day, it’s important to also get blood flowing to different parts of our body. A build up of stress can get stuck in different areas of our body and exercise is a great way of keeping things flowing again. Blood circulation is also important for brain health and cognitive development. If exercising is difficult, you can take 5 minutes to practice a deep belly breathing exercise. Simply breathe in through your nose until your belly expands to its maximum and breathe out slowly through your mouth, extending the inhale and exhale each time. I like to recommend doing this before a homework session to bring greater clarity, focus and also starting from a place of peace - for both parent and child.

3. Listen and Communicate 

Learn to listen and encourage communication of emotions. We often speak to each other, rather than speak with each other. The key to speaking with each other is listening. By being quick to listen and slow to speak, we are creating a safe place for the other, your child or even your spouse to communicate their day or emotions. The first step in emotional wellbeing is to communicate and recognise the emotion. If you’re finding it difficult to do this with your family, you can start off by encouraging everyone in the family to start a journal and picking part of the journal log to share with each other over dinner time.

4. Strengthen Nutritionally 

We all know that if you're sick, it is difficult to get anything done. No matter how much you plan, if you’re unwell, it’s much harder to stick to any kind of routine or practice. Because stress suppresses our immune system, we always want to include immune boosting nutrients like Vitamin C, D, zinc. I love echinacea and elderberry in particular for kids.

The second step is to top up with nutrients that are usually depleted with stress like magnesium, vitamin D and B’s. Ensuring you and your child is on a good multivitamin-mineral is a good way of doing this.

Thirdly, I like to use adaptogenic herbs to help mitigate the effects of stress on my body. Herbals like ashwagandha, rhodiola and maca which can also help support energy levels during times of high stress and are kid friendly. 

Lastly, take care of your second brain- the gut by including probiotic rich foods like sauerkraut and kombucha as well as a daily probiotic

Check out my Almond Maca Smoothie recipe below that will keep your body strong through stressful periods. This smoothie has prebiotic fibres from the almond, gut healing collagen and energizing and stress reducing qualities from the maca. 

photo credit : jcomp
Makes 2 cups

3 cups oat milk
1 handful raw organic non-irradiated almonds
1 tbsp almond butter
1 tbsp Locako vanilla collagen creamer
2 tsp maca powder
2 capsules Udo’s Childrens Probiotic (powder
1 medium sized banana (optional frozen)

Throw all of the ingredients into your blender blend until your desired consistency. I like mine with some almond bits left so that I have something to chew on =) 

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