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 affect 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 are several ways that stress can negatively affect the digestive system, the whole digestive system.
Stress the Brain & Digestion
Stress (and anxiety) activates your fight or flight instincts. This instinct is there to help you get out of any immediate danger, like running away from a bear (which would not be the smartest plan since the average human can not actually outrun a bear). Your brain will shut down or slow down areas that aren’t as necessary to your immediate survival to escape this immediate danger. This, unfortunately, includes your digestive system.
What’s supposed to happen is that once you get out of that immediate danger, your body will balance itself out into a more natural 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 stress, which means that your digestive system is continually being slowed down. When you’re not stressed, neurotransmitters 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 effect 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 very helpful under the right circumstances). When confronted with ‘fight or flight,’ your nervous system starts decreasing blood flow to some areas, and redistributing 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.
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 are vital to your immune system; it helps fight disease, digest food, synthesizes B vitamins, and creates 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 always stressed, and your nervous system is continually 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 weak immune system as well.
(as if the ones we mentioned before weren’t enough)
Poor digestion can cause heartburn. Which isn’t really groundbreaking information. In response to heartburn, people usually tend to take digestive aids. Maybe even with the assumption that the cause of the heartburn is the highly acidic food that you just ate, and not the result of a more significant 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 accidentally 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.
Constipation is never fun, and not just for the reasons why we think. Your food needs to sit in your stomach for a certain amount of time to get the best nutrients out of the food you eat. It then 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” rots and feeds harmful 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?
While stressed the amount of hormones 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 saves 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 changed.
Now this all might seem pretty scary since we’ve all had our run-ins with stress. If these symptoms sound familiar, or if you’re worried that the stress in your life has taken over your digestion, remember, knowing the cause of the symptoms is half the battle.
Unfortunately, there is no on/off switch to stress. We all deal with it differently. There are, however, some helpful tools for managing everyday stress and ways to help support your digestion while you get your stress under 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 breathe 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, singing, and painting are a great way to do this. Many people find that meditation can help them confront the stress in their lives 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, improving your digestion. Maybe not an everyday 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.
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 in that state (especially if you don’t regularly exercise). Still, 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 Naturopath is a great tool in helping you get your body back into balance and getting stress under control, which helps stop 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 digestive or stress-related problems you may have.
Don’t wait. Make an appointment today at www.foxnaturalmedicine.com!
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