How Stress Affects Digestion
This week is dedicated to ‘digestion’. It’s the health challenge that has come up most frequently in my Online Nutrition Clinic in 2020, & so if my nutrition clients are anything to go by – it’s very likely that this email will be gratefully received by either you or someone you know.
The gastrointestinal system is one of the most underappreciated systems in the body. It has a profound impact on our overall health and wellbeing, yet it is often underappreciated, ill-treated and otherwise ignored unless it starts making a lot of commotion.
During the course of our lifetimes, many of us will suffer from poor GI function (if we aren’t already). Be prepared for this and have a plan in place for when it happens.
I have three goals for this article; firstly – to remind you that living with an unhappy digestive system isn’t normal & there are many steps you can take to nourish your digestion back to better health.
Secondly, my goal is to clearly explain the far-reaching effect stress has on our digestion so that you can be more aware of it, & thirdly – I’ll give you some actionable steps which you can implement right away to leave your digestive system in a much more positive state.
Poor digestion is not okay – here is why.
Consider the following about the gastrointestinal system:
- 75% of the body’s immune system is housed in the gastrointestinal system.
- There are more neurons in the small intestine than in the entire spinal cord.
- If you stretched out the entire gastrointestinal system, it would have the surface area of a regulation-sized singles tennis court.
- It is the only system in the body that has its own, independently operating nervous system, called the enteric nervous system.
- There are over 400 species of microbes living in your gut, totalling over 15 pounds of mass and containing more bacteria than there are known stars in the sky.
If the body allocates this many resources to this one particular system, it must be important.
From a compromised immune system, a problematic stress hormone situation, an altered sex hormone system right the way through to blood sugar irregularities — these can all stem from our gut. If we are interested in weight loss, muscle gain or overall health in general, we must start treating our gut with care.
How do we know if we have a distressed digestive system? The following symptoms are ones to start with:
- bad breath
- excessive wind
- burping after meals
- difficulty going to the toilet/constipation
- express toilet visits/diarrhoea
- foul-smelling stools
- inadequate digestion (feeling like you have a brick in your stomach after you eat)
- undigested food in your stools
- burning in the stomach
…so if you experience any of these you can be sure you have some type of gastrointestinal dysfunction.
There are many other symptoms that aren’t typically located in our GI system that are linked to a compromised gut; hormonal imbalances, allergies, eczema, migraines, and autoimmune disease can all be traced back to GI system problems. Interesting, isn’t it?
Our gut lacks pain sensing receptors (known as nociceptors) so unlike other areas of our body which will immediately send a stimulus to our brain so that it can register the ‘pain’ and suitably react, our gut doesn’t have the same pain sensing system. This means we typically wait until things get bad enough to present symptoms to us when it comes to our gut.
Our body communicates via signs & symptoms & while these symptoms are (unfortunately) common since our body doesn’t have a voice, they are our body’s only way of communicating that we need to make some changes.
Poor digestion can have a ripple effect on our energy and confidence, and it can lead us to feel uncomfortable in our clothes & self-conscious around others, particularly if we suffer from wind or urgently needing to make a mad dash for the bathroom.
I hope I’ve got your agreement that focusing on the digestion (rather than burying our head in the sand & hoping it’ll go away) is the best way forward if we want to be proactive with our health.
Stress & digestion – the link explained.
The first thing to mention & to remind you of is that your body always has your best interests at heart & to do its job efficiently, it has a hierarchy of needs & survival comes first – above digestion.
Stress can be a major contributing factor behind almost all health disorders, including those of our digestive system. When our body is under stress, our body makes the stress hormone adrenaline & our sympathetic nervous system drives the ‘fight or flight’ response. The last thing our body has on its agenda is to digest our previous meal; that would be a very inefficient use of our body’s attention, especially when more imminent dangers could be on the horizon.
Our nervous system works in one of two zones:
- Sympathetic activity – which is often called “fight or flight” activity
- Parasympathetic activity – which is often called “rest and digest” activity.
When stress is chronically high, and the adrenal glands (located adjacent to our kidneys) continue to pump out cortisol and adrenaline, our “non-critical” functions are inhibited – things like digestion, liver metabolism and detoxification, cellular repair, immune function, and reproduction.
In order to effectively power our flee or flight from danger, our bodies divert our blood flow away from our digestive system towards our arms & legs, so that our muscles have adequate energy supply to fight or flight should they need to. Consequently, when food arrives into our digestive system when we’re stressed, it doesn’t have the resources to digest it optimally, which leads to symptoms of gastrointestinal distress.
So many people, unknowingly through their food & drink choices, through their lifestyle, their beliefs as well as their thoughts & perceptions, consistently churn out stress hormones and are living in the ‘sympathetic’ zone too often. It might be our jobs, our relationships, financial pressures, rush hour traffic, or any other stressor that throws us into a “fight or flight” state.
We are designed to dip into stress temporarily & then flee the stress, & spend the majority of our lives in a much more zen existence; the issue arises if we have prolonged or unaddressed stress in our lives.
Three action steps you can take today.
1). PINPOINT THE STRESS
No amount of dietary change or supplementation can make up for the effects of unaddressed chronic & unrelenting stress. Spend a few moments writing down the sources of what is stressing you & separate it into two columns: what you CAN control & what you CAN’T.
Be aware of the issues you’ve highlighted as ‘uncontrollable’, but focus your energy on what you CAN do. Start working on the most simple factors on the controllable column first, & work your way through the list, either by yourself or with a good friend who’s solution-focused & supportive of you living a happier life.
2). PAUSE AND SCHEDULE IN NON-NEGOTIABLE ‘REST TIME’
Do you feel rushed day-to-day? Are you constantly feeling like you’re chasing your tail with a never-ending to-do list? Take a moment to pause, reflect on how lucky you are to live where you live, to be able to access the internet – you are already more fortunate than most.
When we address the daily worries & concerns that cloud our brain & drive our body to experience stress, even when we’re not in physical danger, we can choose to save our stress response for the times when we really need it. Exploring our perception of pressure & our sense of perceived ‘urgency’ that we place on our daily life can truly have an incredibly beneficial effect on our gut health.
Scheduling in daily rest is something that I’d encourage. Relaxation looks different to everyone, I have listed a number of examples below, but you’ll know the types of relaxation activities that work best for you.
- Yoga and Pilates – particularly restorative yoga. You don’t need to go to a fancy studio or have matching yoga gear, be comfy, get an exercise mat so that you’re comfortable on the mat and feel free to use your own living room or bedroom and follow a Youtube yoga/pilates flow.
- Meditation – Superb for rest and recovery and to bring some calm to an overwhelmed, busy mind. If you’re new to meditation, I recommend you use a guided meditation app such as ‘Headspace’ or ‘Calm’, or there are some great in-person sessions you can go to with fabulous meditation teachers. Following a guided meditation initially will help to give some structure to your meditation session, rather than sitting there by yourself and trying to go at it alone, lost in a sea of thoughts. Personally, I struggle to do my own meditations, so I rely on the sound of the waves at the beach to ground me, or an app to guide me.
- Spa Treatments – give me a massage any day! Once a month, I’ll treat myself to a massage, and it’s my ultimate stress reliever. A great massage can truly get you deep into a parasympathetic state.
- Bath/Jacuzzi/Sauna – my second favourite way of de-stressing, particularly a jacuzzi or a hot bath filled with essential oils and salts.
The following activities can also work well and can be done at home:
- Reading – Reading in a quiet spot 30 minutes before bed
- Warm tea – Pour yourself a mug of herbal tea, sit in a calm spot, wrap your hands around the warm mug and enjoy having some time out, accompanied by the smells, the flavour and the warmth of the tea.
- Music and wine – Drinking a glass of red wine and listening to music before bed
- Bath and candles – Lighting candles and having an Epson salts bath filled with essential oils, I can’t think of a better way to give stillness and warmth to the body. I like to turn the lights in my bathroom off and lie in a room only lit by candlelight – it brings such calm to the senses.
3). SEEK HELP
See a qualified & experienced practitioner to support you with targeted dietary changes, medicinal herbs &/or medications to resolve any potential gut bacteria/parasite problems.
Don’t over-complicate things – start with the most conquerable and far-reaching benefits first:
What’s your water intake like? And are you hitting five portions of vegetables into your diet daily?
When I work with clients, we’ll look to control inflammation and identify food sensitivities. We do this with a strict elimination diet for a period of 3-6 weeks.
A good elimination diet means removing foods to which many people are sensitive, including:
- wheat and gluten-containing foods
- all dairy products
- the nightshade family of vegetables (i.e. onions, tomatoes, eggplant)
- anything else we think may be causing you issues
You may be asking, “What’s left to eat?” Good question. You’ll eat a lot of rice, turkey, fish, lamb, green vegetables, and certain fruits (i.e. blueberries, apples).
This may seem restrictive, but the effects of a properly followed elimination diet are sometimes nothing short of miraculous. Persistence and strictly sticking to a well-structured elimination diet can really be worthwhile. I often encourage people not to undertake such a diet without supervision – it’s just too demanding and requires too much-specialised knowledge.
I hope this article resonates