Stress & Digestion

Stress is the bane of human health. Something so easy to have in your daily life, and so hard to get rid of when it’s there.

Unfortunately, stress can effect many areas of your life including sleep, headaches, muscle tension, and other aspects of your physical and emotional health. But what we tend to forget about, is the enormous effect that stress can have on digestion.

There is a number of ways that stress can negitivly effect the digestive system, the whole digestive system.

Stress the Brain & Digestion

Stress (and anxiety) activates your fight or flight instincts, which is there to help you get out of any immediate danger that you might be facing, like running away from a bear (which would not be the smartest plan since the average human can not actually out run a bear). In order to get yourself out of this immediate danger your brain will shut down or slow down areas which aren’t as necessary to your immediate survival. This, unfortunately, includes your digestive system.

Now, what’s supposed to happen is that once you get out of that immediate danger your body will balance itself out into a more normal and even state. But that doesn’t always happen. People who face chronic stress or anxiety can often get caught in that fight or flight instinct with only brief intervals of non-stress which means that your digestive system is constantly being slowed down.  When you’re not stressed neurotransmitter like adrenaline and epinephrine levels go down and digestion can resume. Often these non-stress periods are not long enough for everything to normalize creating ongoing issues.

This chronic stress affect often shows itself as constipation, diarrhea, bloating, feeling very hungry (even if you’ve been snacking all day), or not hungry at all (even if you haven’t eaten), gas, and other issues.

But that isn’t the only way that stress affects your digestion and your brain.

The Nervous System

Your digestion is controlled, like a lot of things in your body, by your nervous system. Stress, as we know from earlier in the article, activates this pesky fight or flight instinct (which is actually very helpful under the right circumstances). When confronted with ‘fight or flight’ your nervous system starts decreasing blood flow to some areas, and restributing it to others, like your limbs and brain, in order to get you out of that immediate danger. This lack of blood flow to digestion means that your metabolism is going go into it’s ‘slow mo’ state. Once again this can result in constipation, gas, bloating, and weight gain (you’re going to start seeing a pattern with these symptoms).

It doesn’t stop there.

Immunity

Fun fact: 60%-80% of your immunity is stored in your gut. Your gut contains a lot of bacteria, like a lot, a lot. Good bacteria, and bad. Good bacteria is vital to your immune system, it helps fight disease, digest food, synthesize B vitamins and create chemical reactions which help your body function at optimum efficiency and regulate your emotions.

Remember that nervous system that we just talked about? Well when dealing with stress, it creates a chemical reaction with kills off a lot of this good bacteria in your gut. If you’re constantly stressed, and your nervous system is constantly having to deal with that, it means that a lot of that good bacteria is getting killed without any time to restore it. This leads not only to poor digestion and everything that goes with it, but it can lead to a poor immune system as well.

The Downfalls
(as if the ones we mentioned before weren’t enough)

High Acidity:
Poor digestion can cause heart burn. Which isn’t really ground breaking information. In response to heart burn people usually tend to take digestive aids. Maybe even with the assumption that the cause of the heart burn is the highly acidic food that you just ate, and not the result of a larger problem.

Stress can cause the muscle which closes off the esophagus from the stomach to spasm when it’s supposed to be firmly shut. During these spasms small amounts of stomach acid can accidently get released, and travel back up the esophagus burning as it goes. This can cause a lot of pain. While digestive aids can help relieve this pain by getting the stomach to produce less acid, it leads to you not digesting food as well and it’s a temporary fix. Antacids only treat the symptom not the cause.

Diarrhea/Constipation:
Constipation is never fun, and not just for the reasons why we think. In order to get the best nutrients out of the food you eat, your food needs to sit in your stomach for a certain amount of time, and then it needs to be released in an orderly fashion in order to get rid of the waste that it doesn’t want or need. Constipation is the interruption of that elimination, a natural form of detoxification. Your bowels should move one to three times a day.  When you don’t eliminate daily, that “food” just rots and feeds bad bacteria.  Alternatively diarrhea is when food moves too quickly through your digestion, not allowing you to get the proper nutrients from the food you’re eating.

You’re eating all this great, healthy, nutritious food (right?), but because of stress you’re not getting all the benefits from the food that you should be.  How frustrating is that? 

Hormones:

While stressed the amount hormones changes your brain produces changes, two main hormones affected are cortisol and insulin.  Cortisol is known to cause us to store more energy in the form of fat.  Guess where it stores it?  In the belly.  Insulin levels decrease causing problems that can lead to diabetes or exacerbate it.  In addition catecholamines increase and affect the heart, blood glucose goes up, even breathing can be affected.

Now this all might seem pretty scary, since we’ve all had our run ins with stress. If any of these symptoms seem familiar, or if you’re at all worried that the stress in your life has taken over your digestion, remember, knowing the cause of the symptoms is really half the battle.

Unfortunately, there is no on/off switch to stress. We all deal with it differently, there are, however, some helpful tools to managing every day stress and ways to help support your digestion while you get your stressunder control.

TREAT YO’ SELF
(Find ways to relax, and take yourself out of the fight or flight response)

Slow down and Breath:
We often forget to breath while stressed. Poor breathing (fast and sporadic) can cause your body to tense and stay tense thinking you need to be moving faster then you do. Calming your breath can calm the rest of your body. Meditation, yoga, martial arts, listening to your favorite music, singingand painting are a great way to do this.  Many people find that meditation can help them confront the stress in their life in positive and powerful ways. Breathing properly can help your body regain that relaxed state more quickly and stay there longer.  

Get a Massage:
This is a great way to get your body to be more relaxed, not to mention that a good massage can also help increase blood flow helping your digestion. Maybe not an every day option, but if you’re feeling particularly stressed in your life right now, it can be immensely helpful in getting less tense.  Plan a weekly or monthly massage treat.

Exercise:
A great way to deal with the fight or flight response, exercise feeds into what you’re body thinks is happening. Stress takes you to fight or flight, your body responds to that by getting more blood to your arms and brain, exercising uses that redirection of resources of fight or flight. It can be hard starting off in that state (especially if you don’t regularly exercise) but by the end of it (even if it’s just ten or fifteen minutes) your body has had the time to burn off that energy and stress and can return to a more normalized state, because you’re doing exactly what it thought it needed to do.

VISIT YOUR NATUROPATH/DOCTOR
Getting your stress under control is hugely important, since it’s often the cause of a lot of problems in your digestion and other areas of the body. A Naturopath can help by giving you some natural therapies to help de-stress, repair and restore your digestive functions or by referring you to someone who will help you talk out the issues in your life.

Your Naturpath is a great tool in helping you get your body back into balance and getting stress under control, which is helpful in stopping further attacks on your digestion,

Naturopath, Dr. Maggie Fox has helped many people manage their stress and bring balance back to their gut, she is a great resource to help you with any diegestive or stress related problems you may have.

Don’t wait. Make an appointment today at www.foxnaturalmedicine.com!

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