As solopreneurs, online biz bosses and side hustlers, we're often told to listen to our guts. But what if the only thing your gut ever tells you is, I'm really not happy with what you've been eating lately?
If an upset stomach has gotten in the way of your productivity more than once, it's time to stop and take notice. For years, I tried to ignore my own digestive problems while I worked on my freelance recipe development business. I specialized in all-natural recipes and ate a healthy diet, yet my stomach felt bad more often than it felt good.
For me, learning how to treat my issues with the right foods made all the difference. Whether you need a similar diet overhaul, or you just need to make more time to cook, you'll be amazed by how much more you can bring to your business with a happy belly. I'm talking from experience.
The 5 strategies below are packed with specific tips to get your digestive health in order, especially if you can relate to any of the following:
- You don't have the energy to cook healthy meals so you end up eating Hot Pockets. Again.
- You feel stuffed at night because you skipped lunch and ate a huge dinner to make up for it.
- You think you're eating healthfully, but you still feel bloated or sick after meals.
- You wake up starving in the morning or craving the dynamic duo of sugar and caffeine.
- You find yourself urgently running to bathroom after a meal.
#1: Stop Stressing
I'm not going to tell you to stop hustling to promote your site or working your butt off to meet a launch deadline. These are good things when you're a #girlboss. But if more opportunities equal more anxiety, your health (not to mention your sanity) will start to suffer.
When you're stressed, your body releases cortisol. This hormone prepares you for the "fight-or-flight" response by temporarily shutting down secondary processes like digestion*. If your days regularly consist of mini freak-outs, your belly has a hard time getting any work done (and so do you, I'm guessing).
Stress hormones can also send our cravings into overdrive and reduce our self-control to the level of a sleepy 5-year old. Just think of those nights when you take down enough Pad Thai (or, you know, whatever your comfort food of choice might be) to feed two adults. Then you spend the next day feeling full, bloated and distracted from your business.
Here are some ways to stop stressing, and give your belly a break:
- Cut out time sucks like hourly social media check-ins or fiddling with blog design. No more worrying about when you'll have time to create your irresistible new info product.
- Take 1 day off each week. If you're in launch mode and can't take a whole Saturday, close up shop at 6pm. Meet friends for dinner and bowling and don't be late!
- Just say no to chaos. Write down your every task and idea. Find a system or app you actually like using, whether it's a different notebook for every aspect of your biz, a google calendar or a project management app like Asana.
- Find a support network and lean on them. Join a Facebook business group and show up regularly. Not only does helping other biz babes mean they'll be there for you, but the great feeling you get from being of service will slash your own stress.
#2: Get Your 8 Hours (Okay, 6 hours. Let's be real)
You know it's easier to be brilliant all day when you actually sleep at night. Even a major, empire-building boss like Ariana Huffington preaches about making sleep a priority. But did you know that not getting enough shut-eye actually increases your appetite?
The research shows cutting your sleep from 8 to 5 hours a night increases levels of ghrehlin, otherwise known as the hunger hormone. As if that weren't enough, levels of leptin, the hormone that keeps your appetite in check, decrease with lack of sleep. Other studies concluded that it takes just one or two late nights to mess with your hormones and send your appetite into overdrive.
To avoid this vicious cycle and make it your mission to get 7 to 8 hours of sleep (6 at the very least!), try these bedtime strategies:
- Brain dump to clear your head.
- Turn off your devices and read a fiction book (not a business book!). Just a few pages helps.
- Take a hot bath or shower.
- Don't eat too late (it can disrupt sleep patterns).
#3: Pay Attention To Symptoms
As an entrepreneur, you know the value of listening to your gut. Sometimes those excited butterflies in your stomach are encouraging you to build the ecourse of your dreams. Do it! On the other hand, if you're bloated, sluggish or having abdominal pain after you eat, your belly is telling you something else. Either way, ignoring your gut will hurt your business.
Since entrepreneurs like us love a good organization system, here's how you can make sense of your symptoms in the most efficient way possible. First, set up a food journal in your favorite app. Two simple options are an Evernote notebook or a spreadsheet in Google docs.
You're going to track two key metrics: what you eat and how you feel. Do your best to write down everything you put in your mouth and the time of day. Don't forget about beverages like diet soda or your fifth cup of coffee. Then note how you feel. Are you focused an energized all afternoon? Uncomfortably full after lunch? Exhausted by 9 PM?
After you do this for a week or two, go back and do some detective work. Look for patterns or anything out of the ordinary. For example, maybe you were starving for lunch on the days you had cold cereal for breakfast, but not when you had eggs and whole wheat toast. Or if you almost always have stomach cramps after ordering a turkey sub, but not when you get the soup and salad combo, then you know what to do.
What if you do the food journal, but still can't make sense of the random rumblings in your belly? If you've been feeling sick to your stomach consistently for several weeks or longer, it's time to dig deeper.
Common gastro-intestinal issues like IBS are most likely to pop up in your teens to 40s, even if you've always had a happy stomach. The root cause still isn't fully understood, but stress definitely makes it worse. It's estimated that 10-15% of the population has IBS, and it's roughly twice as common in women*. If you've been having symptoms like bloating, gas, diarrhea and/or constipation, pay a visit to your doctor ASAP. You can't run the world if your stomach throws you off your game on a regular basis.
#4: Clean Up Your Diet (at least 80% of the time)
You don't need to overhaul your life to eat healthier. The last thing you need is to turn your diet into a big project. You have enough of those.
Here's what you can do instead: strive to eat natural, unprocessed foods about 80% of the time. What does that really look like? For 4 out of every 5 meals you choose things that aren't from a package (or a package with a few recognizable ingredients). Think chicken salad with a quick homemade dressing or a bean and cheese burrito on a whole grain wrap. Then for that fifth meal you can go out for burgers and not feel guilty about it.
To make this easier, I created a free cheat sheet: 10 Easy Belly-Friendly Lunch Ideas!
If your belly needs more help due to IBS or other GI problems, you could be sensitive to high FODMAP foods. FODMAPs (an acronym that stands for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides And Polyols) are certain types of carbohydrates that may not be fully absorbed in the small intestine. When you're sensitive to them, this leads to those not-fun symptoms like gas and bloating. FODMAPs are found in otherwise healthy foods like apples, honey, wheat, rye, onions, asparagus and plums, just to name a few.
A low-FODMAP diet helped me get my IBS symptoms under control after years of never knowing when my stomach was going to get in the way of my life. To learn more, read my Non-Techy Guide to FODMAPs for Regular Chicks.
#5: Create Systems
No solo biz owner can thrive without systems, and the same goes for your health. You wouldn't schedule a client meeting and not put it on your calendar and send a reminder, would you? Similarly, if a morning run or trip to the grocery store doesn't go in your planner, it may not get done.
Depending on what you need to focus on most, start with one of these system templates. Adapt it to fit your life and start creating your own self-care systems!
For finding time to cook (do weekly): Search Pinterest for make-ahead recipes (or use the Easy Lunches Cheat Sheet!) or brainstorm foods to repurpose in various meals, like a big batch of chicken breasts--->Make a list and schedule a time to shop--->Block off an hour or two on Sunday for food prep--->Use your ingredients to create meals all week (for example, use the chicken for sandwiches, salads and burritos).
For dealing with stress (do weekly or monthly): Make a list of all the tasks or parts of your life that cause worry--->Add everything to your calendar that can be scheduled (researching new income streams, writing a sales page, buying your niece a birthday present)--->Block off 20 minutes to make necessary appointments and add them to your calendar (haircut, dentist, your pet's vet visit)--->Put your next vacation day on your calendar; consider buying tickets to a show or planning an activity with friends so have to take a bread from working.
I know how hard it is to think about other aspects of your life when your business is your baby. Just remember, you can't take care of that bundle of joy when your diet, stress level and digestive health are in disarray. Put just one of these strategies into practice today and give yourself a jump start with the Belly-Friendly Lunches bonus. You'll be rocking your business and your health before you know it!
Julie O'Hara is a food coach and the blogger behind calmbellykitchen.com. She helps women eat for digestive wellness with low-FODMAP recipes, menu planning strategies and mindful eating. For the past 8 years, Julie has been a freelance recipe developer and nutrition writer, and her work has been published in Shape, Prevention, Vegetarian Times and Clean Eating. She lives in Chicago with her husband and their pug, Frank.