Our bodies can cope with a little bit of stress… but most of us live in the stress response far too much of the time, causing a stressed digestive system. Most of us don’t realise how impactful stress can be on the gut – and it’s not just the big life events like moving house, work stress or bereavement that can cause a problem, but also the small everyday things we deal with.
So why does stress have so much of an effect on our digestion? Well when we’re stressed, our body’s priority is NOT to digest our food. This is the “cave man response” – your body goes into survival mode, also known as the fight or flight response, and channels all its energy to deal with the ‘attack’ in hand (whether that was a big bear in our caveman days, or a looming deadline or huge traffic jam in modern times). The bigger the ‘attack’ (or stressor) the more severe the response of your body – in some extreme cases shutting down your digestion completely or forcing your bowels to evacuate far too quickly.
There is also a direct correlation with our brain and our gut, with the vast majority of our body’s serotonin production made in our digestive system. This “feel good” neurotransmitter is associated with depression and anxiety, which is another reason that so many people can experience gut issues when they feel stressed.
Most of us are dealing with low-grade, every day stressors that overtime cause our stress bucket to overflow and force us to be in the stress response far too often. These can have a dramatic ongoing impact on your digestive system, causing symptoms such as constipation, diarrhoea, wind, bloating, heartburn and poor absorption of nutrients. Stress on our digestive system can come from so many factors – external stressors such as lack of sleep, work deadlines, not taking enough relaxation time, bereavement, relationship stress… to internal stress such as poor diet (this is such a common one), certain medications, inflammation, too much alcohol, not enough soluble fibre, depression and anxiety. The list is large and so individual to every one of us.
Here are some of the symptoms you may experience with a stressed digestive system, and factors that you may consider to help relieve your symptoms.
Reflux and indigestion are a daily occurrence for so many – stress can cause the muscles of the oesophagus to spasm and the impact of this is that stomach acid floods back up causing it to burn the oesophageal lining. Painful, long lasting and leaving you vulnerable to disease in the future if not looked after. While temporary medication can relieve the symptoms, it is worth looking at the causes… I find in clinic that too much wheat, dairy and sugar can be some of the most common triggers, and including lots of cooked, easy to digest foods rather than too much raw food can be a helpful first step.
- Altered bowel movement
Food works its way through your digestive system to allow your guts to take out the nutrients it needs and create its waste along the way. If a stressed digestive system is slowing or shutting down, it can cause constipation, wind, bloating and discomfort, or can move your food too quickly along the gut, causing diarrhoea and poor absorption of nutrients.
Being able to pass stools regularly – and by that, I mean at least once a day – is essential for good health. Our gut and bowel play a huge role in our bodily health, clearing waste from the body and keeping us healthy from the inside out. For example, did you know that in addition to processing the food we eat, going for a poo also clears excess hormones such as oestrogen? If your bowel can’t do its job properly this can then lead to other issues such as PMS or other hormonal imbalance problems. You can find out more about the importance of pooing and what your poo is telling you here.
Our gut is also directly linked to our brains. We make lots of serotonin (the neurotransmitter responsible for balancing our moods) in our gut. If our bowels aren’t performing at an optimum level this can lead to mood swings – in both adults and children!
- Stress Affects Immunity and Microbial Balance
Your guts are full of bacteria, most of which are beneficial to your health – helping you digest your food, support your immune system and fight off bugs.
Continual stress can wipe out good gut bacteria, leaving you with an imbalance of these essential gut bugs and more susceptible to tummy problems, illness and poor immunity. Of course for most of us it’s impossible to eradicate all our stress, but there’s a lot you can do to help support these beneficial gut bacteria.
My go-to- gut- booster is to eat foods with natural probiotics – if you have followed me for a while you will know my love of fermented foods! Sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi, yoghurt – all fantastic naturally occurring probiotics. You can also take a daily supplement of probiotics (I also recommend this for children – mine have them every day, especially during the winter.)
It’s also another reason to reduce sugar in your diet…. the non-beneficial bacteria in your guts love sugar, and if you feed them too much sweet stuff and white carbohydrate, this can lead to an imbalance of these important gut bacteria, as well as more wind and bloating.
One last note on metabolism and fat storage…
Finally, don’t forget that stress can negatively impact your metabolism too, which is the process by which you burn calories and create energy for your cells. Once you’ve done all that magical digestive process, and your body takes in the energy from your food… if you’re too stressed you’re much more likely to store it as fat, especially around the tummy.
Stress hormones such as cortisol tell your body to store fat in times of stress, and stop building muscle, which can make it much more difficult to maintain a healthy weight and leaner tummy.
Supporting your metabolism and ability to manage stress with a good blood sugar balancing diet is a great starting point, but it’s also important for me to say that addressing your lifestyle is also key. Simple things you can do every day include making time for you, recognising stress and doing something positive each and every day to support your body through it: go for a walk, do some light to moderate exercise, bake, spend time with friends, get out in the fresh air, hug a tree… they may be small things, but just 10 minutes a day for ‘you’ can help you to cope and not let daily stresses overwhelm.
If you’d like to find out more about how I could help you with your digestive system, then please contact me today.