How Does Stress Impact Digestion?
The relationship; between psychological stress and gastrointestinal tract has long been hypothesized; by the ancient Greeks. A simple instance is that the very thought of food can cause the stomach to produce digestive juices, and the thought; of a competitive examination or attending an interview may cause butterflies in the stomach.
Stress is a state of threatened homeostasis either physically; or psychologically or a state of disharmony triggered by intrinsic and extrinsic stressors and is counteracted; by an intricate repertoire of physiological and behavioural responses which aim to reestablish/maintain the optimal body equilibrium. Exposure to both short and long-term effects of stress has a negative impact; on the functions of the gastrointestinal tract.
SYN BETWEEN GUT AND BRAIN
Our breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure, and body temperature, are regulated by the autonomic nervous system. This complex network of nerves extends from the brain to all the major organs of the body and has; 2 major divisions, the sympathetic nervous system which, triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response, and the parasympathetic nervous system, calms the body down after the danger has passed.
A subdivision of the autonomic nervous system called the enteric nervous system; or intrinsic nervous system, controls the digestive process. There are about 200-600 million neurons in the gut that make up the enteric nervous system which communicates with the central nervous system to form the gut-brain axis.
When we enter a sympathetic-dominant state; or stressful state, our body releases hormones such as noradrenaline, adrenaline, cortisol, and corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF). These stress hormones trigger a cascade of events in the body to initiate a quick response to stress and pass messages to the enteric nervous system to down-regulate digestion. During a stressful event, the body will route its resources to trigger fight or flight and conserves functions that aren’t immediately needed; for survival. This makes it clear that digestion may get shut down during stress by slowing the contractions of the digestive muscles and decreasing secretions for digestion.
STRESS CAN CAUSE CONSTIPATION OR DIARRHEA
As informed earlier, during; a stressful event, activities needed to fight or flight, such as breathing, heart function, and muscle contractions, get resources funneled their way. Hence the less pressing activity like digestion gets put on hold. If the stress response becomes chronic, it can negatively impact your gut’s motility and the ability; to digest foods. Stress response; can cause the gut muscles to spasm, leading to a lack of appetite. Stress can slow the movement of food through certain areas; of the gastrointestinal tract, which may contribute to constipation in some people. The slowed digestion caused by stress can cause uncomfortable bloating and muscle spasms which can be painful. Stress can also have the opposite effect on the digestive tract. Stress may sometimes cause food to move too quickly through your system causing, you to get; a bout of diarrhea or repeated urges to urinate.
STRESS MAY CAUSE ACID REFLUX & HEARTBURN
People generally associate heartburn and acid reflux with poor diet, smoking, and drinking alcohol, but stress can also majorly; contribute to heartburn.
The physiological stress response can cause the sphincter that closes off the esophagus from the stomach to spasm, which; can lead to stomach acid flowing into the esophagus, causing it to burn the esophageal lining and cause irritation. Stress may make swallowing foods difficult or increase the amount of air that is swallowed, which increases burping, gassiness, and bloating.
Acidity medication can only provide temporary relief and decreases the production of stomach acid, if you stop taking the medication, chances are the heartburn will return. Stress can often lead to a craving for highly palatable foods, which further aggravate acid reflux symptoms. Stress can also sometimes make you eat less than usual which can cause stress ulcers.
STRESS CAN CAUSE ABDOMINAL PAIN & DISCOMFORT
Stress can cause a decrease in blood and oxygen flow to the stomach, leading to stomach cramping and inflammation. These symptoms can further develop into gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome and gastroesophageal reflux disease. Stress can make peristalsis uncoordinated and make your mind more aware of sensations in the colon. Those with intestinal bowel syndrome may feel more discomfort due to extra sensitive pain receptors in the gastrointestinal tract.
STRESS CAN LEAD TO IMPAIRED NUTRIENT ABSORPTION
Stress does not cause you to produce enough stomach acid and digestive enzymes, this, allows you to break down food optimally to facilitate proper nutrient absorption. Without proper levels; of stomach acid, the key minerals; and nutrients can’t be absorbed, into the body. Not needed to say, if the body does not receive enough nutrients, it suffers from nutrient deficiency. When you’re stressed, you tend to; gulp the food without properly; chewing it. Unless you thoroughly chew your food, digestive enzymes and stomach acid are not released optimally. When you consume food, it should stay in your digestive system for a certain length of; time to allow for good nutrient absorption. Stress might increase the gut motility and cause food to move too quickly through your system, not leaving enough time for the nutrients to be absorbed, which leads to nutritional deficiencies.
STRESS CAN CAUSE GUT DYSBIOSIS
As per studies; stress promotes gut bacterial imbalances as well as; low diversity. Dysbiosis and low diversity may cause food cravings, compromise immune function, and make you prone to diseases. Stress can overstimulate the autonomic nervous system, releasing stress hormones and causing inflammation. The heightened inflammation that accompanies stress can increase gut barrier permeability and cause a leaky gut, bacteria to leak through the stress remodeled gut barrier; thereby boosting inflammation. Constipation, which is another consequence of stress, can interrupt the detoxification process and lead to a host of problems including gas, stomachache, and bloating.
HOW CAN WE ACTIVATE NORMAL GI?
To have a positive impact on the digestive system, we should activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the body and brain’s rest and digest response, it undoes what the sympathetic nervous system does.
Engaging in regular physical exercise, getting an adequate amount of sleep, and practicing stress reduction techniques like reading a book, biking, meditation, yoga, deep breathing, and diffusing essential oil can all create a buffer from stress.
Limit eating fatty, sugary, processed food eating, alcohol which, seems to increase stress.
Eat probiotic-rich food and consider taking a magnesium glycinate supplement.
More important of all, practice mindful eating.