Updated: Nov 20
For many people, the holidays are a joyful time of reunion with family members. If you don’t live in the same city as your family, you may not see many of them for months at a time, and the holidays can be a time to finally get together again.
But for anyone who’s recently lost a family member, the holidays can be a time of intense grief. The memories of previous joyful holiday seasons can make the grief even more painful.
Grief can have a significant impact on your health. When you’re gathering around the table for a meal, but someone beloved is now missing, you may particularly notice the effects on your digestive tract.
Grief can slow down digestion
When you’re in the midst of grieving, your body is secreting stress hormones like cortisol. The stress response tends to slow down digestion. During a period of acute stress (such as being chased by a tiger), digestion is a nonessential function that can wait until after the threat has passed.
This is why many people who are grieving tend to lose their appetites. You may simply not feel hungry. You might know that you should probably eat, but the idea of food is not appealing. It’s very common to lose weight while grieving.
Grief can alter your gut microbiome
Recent research has also shown that grief can alter the balance of bacteria in your gut. The chronic stress of grief promotes the growth of some species and inhibits others. Your gut microbiome has a huge impact on many different aspects of your health, and the changes that grief induces in the microbiome are believed to help explain why grieving people are more vulnerable to a variety of diseases.
Because of the alterations of your gut bacteria, you may notice changes in how you digest certain foods while you’re in the midst of grief. Not only is digestion slowed down overall, but the changes in the specific bacteria in your gut can alter how your body is able to process certain foods.
In addition, we know that your gut bacteria influence your mental health. The shifts in your microbiome could contribute to increased anxiety, depression, and vulnerability to stress.
Grief can trigger emotional eating
At the same time, food is a very common coping mechanism. When you’re grieving, you may find yourself reaching for particular foods as a way to help yourself feel better when a wave of grief hits you. This can lead to a cycle where someone doesn’t eat much all day, then binges on junk food.
Most of the foods that people use for comfort are not healthy ones. They’re often highly processed foods, which have been shown to alter your gut microbiome in negative ways. If you fall into a pattern of emotional eating while you’re grieving, this can have negative impacts on your health. In addition, it may be hard to break these patterns later, even after you’ve moved through grief.
How can you manage gut health while grieving?
As you’re moving through your grief process, here are a few simple ways you can try to minimize the impact of grief on your gut health.
Make sure you’re eating enough. You won’t necessarily feel like eating while you’re grieving, but your body still needs nourishment. Try to make sure that you have at least a little bit of healthy food at your normal mealtimes, even when you don’t really want to eat. This will also lessen the chances that you’ll be tempted to binge on junk food later.
Find healthy coping mechanisms. A support group or therapist may be helpful as you process your grief. Lean on friends and family members as well. Exercise is very helpful for many people – this is something else you might not feel like doing, but it’s very important. Art, music, and other forms of creativity also help many people to process emotions like grief.
Eat mindfully. When you’re grieving, your mind will tend to be preoccupied with thoughts of your lost loved one. When you sit down to eat, gently encourage your mind to focus on your food. Pay attention to the tastes, smells, and textures. This will help you to notice the signals your body is sending about how much food it needs and what types.
Support from a mental health professional can be extremely valuable, but you may also benefit from the support of a community that’s focused on healthy living. The members of our MGS Academy community are able to reach out to each other when they need help in prioritizing their health during challenging times. This can make a huge difference in how you move through grief.
When you’re grieving, remember that you’re not alone. Reach out for help if you need it.