Our world today has us living in an extreme high-tech environment. In the period of one day, you can spend up to 10 hours sitting and staring at a computer or other electronic device. As you do this, your body becomes tense. Even ahead of time, your body has an expectation of what the next hours will be like. Consequently, just knowing this starts filling you with stress hormones until it completely fills your bucket and spills over.
We are always ‘on’ – there is always some type of electronic device informing us of the latest crisis. When you listen to all that is happening around you, it creates a stress in the form of ‘what if’ – what if I’m in a car accident, what if I lose my job, what if something happens to my family member.
It’s almost as if we are still in that evolutionary survival of the fittest – only this time it’s on a global scale. This affects not only the world around you, but also impacts your internal environment as well. You may often feel like your body is speeding up, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. There is a stress that is created as you feel a need to keep up with this chaotic environment we have created.
These adaptive changes your body makes impacts your health drastically by causing oxidative stress, rapid changes in adrenal function, alterations in digestive function, nervous system anticipation, and cardiovascular function.
What I would like to focus on today is how your stress impacts your body’s ability to digest your food, causing uncomfortable digestive symptoms.
Why does stress have such control over your body’s digestion?
You’ve heard this before, how your body goes into a mode of “Fight or Flight” when you’re under stress. You’ve heard the example. When the caveman was hunted by the local tiger. In order to survive, his/her hormones shut down all body functions not related to escaping from or fighting the tiger.
Functions such as reproduction – not needed! Functions such as digestion – also not needed at that moment with the tiger about to pounce! As the tiger approached, the caveman’s cortisol increased, providing blood flow, energy, and focus to strengthening his arms and legs, as well as sharpening his alertness. At the same time, his digestion slowed to a grinding halt.
That’s the impact of a momentary stressor.
Imagine what CHRONIC stress does to our digestion
It does have a significant effect. This is a reciprocal effect, meaning that the more your digestion gets messed up, this is an indicator to show you the more stressed you may get about what’s going on!
So we really do need to focus on how to reduce our stress to improve our digestion and overall health.
Your gut and mind are very interconnected
A lot of people walk around with digestive issues when there are no apparent physical reasons, such as an illness, infection, food-allergy, or disease. In a recent Harvard Medical School article, the authors stated that “functional gastrointestinal disorders affect 35% to 70% of people…have no apparent physical cause…yet result in pain, bloating, and other discomfort.”
Possible reasons for all of this digestive drama?
Your mind, your mood, your stress. They all impact your digestion.
Your gut – your digestive system – is like a “second brain.” It reacts to stress based on changes in your hormones triggered by your nervous system. Did you know your gut even produces and utilizes mood altering brain messenger chemicals called neurotransmitters? These are chemicals, like serotonin, a hormone which makes you feel happy and content.
To understand how your second brain works, let me talk a bit about what part of your nervous system actually keeps your digestion running smoothly and how it can be impacted so greatly by stress.
Your body’s central nervous system has two branches, the parasympathetic branch – which does all the everyday tasks that keep you alive, such as breathing – and the sympathetic branch – springs into action during “Fight or Flight” situations, which includes chronic stress.
The parasympathetic nervous system – digestion’s friend
First, let’s talk about what the parasympathetic branch is responsible for related to digestion.
This system controls:
- Saliva secretions that help break down your food
- Digestive enzyme secretions which also break down your food
- The muscle contraction movement of food through the digestive tract
- The absorption of nutrients from your digested food
- Control of sphincters to allow passage of food through your gut
- Secretion of mucus to protect your stomach lining from caustic digestive chemicals
- Blood flow which brings oxygen into the gut and moves nutrients out into your bloodstream
- Creation of a balanced microbiome supporting friendly, happy bacteria
- Support of immune cells in the gut to protect your body against infections and invading pathogens
So, you can see how important the parasympathetic branch is, and that it usually just does its thing behind the scene. You don’t have to think about it, it just happens – except…
…when you are under stress, your parasympathetic system gets over-ridden by your sympathetic branch. When the sympathetic branch takes over, its sole purpose is to mobilize your body to deal with that tiger!
This generally inhibits a healthy and happy digestion.
The sympathetic nervous system – ready to fight the tiger!
In this mode – when the sympathetic branch or stress takes over – your body is more apt to experience:
- Reduced secretions (saliva, digestive enzymes, and the stomach lining mucous) – which impacts your body’s ability to break down the food you eat
- Blood flow – goes to areas of the body that are needed to escape the tiger, such as skeletal muscles and the heart, and away from your digestive organs. This impacts the amount of nutrients your body can absorb from the food you eat
- Muscular contractions – are impacted, creating discomfort, diarrhea, or constipation
- Sphincters close or do not operate properly – which slows the digesting food’s transit time through your digestive tract. A slower transit time means more water is absorbed out of the digesting food, often resulting in constipation. This also allows toxins to remain in your colon for longer periods of time
- Stomach lining – can become damaged due to the reduction of protective mucus, which can allow more toxins to be absorbed. This can cause leaky gut and other digestive issues
- Immunity is reduced – the majority of your body’s immune cells are found in the digestive tract
How do you get your gut and mind in a parasympathetic mode again?
There are many things you can do to help stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system to get back in control of your digestion. Here are just a few ideas. I also want to emphasize that reducing stress is good for you in a lot of additional ways beyond your digestive health! Stress can make or break your ongoing health, it really can. Working to reduce your stress can have immediate – and substantial – impacts to your health, in addition to improving your digestion.
So here are some things you can easily do that will make a difference:
Slow down at meals and take a moment to appreciate
Researchers have discovered that “appreciation” stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. This actually creates a positive sequence of changes in your neurology, hormones, and biochemistry that benefit your digestion and entire body. Check out my previous blog post on this interesting research, and how I use an appreciation journal to reduce my stress and improve my digestion.
I also suggest that prior to eating you take a moment to reflect on the food you are about to eat, whether you thank the farmer for growing it, reflect on the earth it came from, etc. Slowing down your meal, while also taking a moment to experience appreciation, has amazing benefits on your digestion.
And while on the subject of appreciation and getting your parasympathetic nervous system back in the driver’s seat, let me encourage you to do some intentional deep breathing while practicing positivity. I am a certified practitioner for the HeartMath process and it is a wonderful way to improve your stress and digestion. Go to their site, www.HeartMath.org, for more information and interesting research on the science behind this process. Their system involves deep-breathing techniques, coupled with focusing on positive emotions, to create a sense of well-being and calm. It will reduce your cortisol levels and help you get out of the “Fight or Flight” mode.
Get outside and spend time with a friend, pet, passion, or hobby – and have FUN
Those of you who follow me know that I always say how important it is to have FUN. Healthy fun, of course, but it is so important to have FUN. Connect with people face-to-face, pets, nature, and remember what your passions are. I am a huge proponent – and research backs this up – that connecting with nature can reduce your stress and provide many other health benefits. Make time to do things like taking a walk, enjoying a meal outside, taking a pet for a walk, and forest bathing. Have you tried forest bathing? I know it sounds odd, but it is really just “bathing” all of your senses with the sounds, smells and textures of the forest. Just walking barefoot is incredibly stress-reducing. It is called earthing.
While you are connecting with friends and loved ones, along with enjoying some fun and nature, you won’t be watching the news and social media – another huge benefit! Focus on positivity and you’ll see a huge shift in your cortisol – along with your digestion!
Cortisol can’t be in control when you are oozing positive and happy hormones such as endorphins and oxytocin, the human bonding hormone.
I would also add that laughing is part of having fun. Cortisol has a hard time existing when there are good belly laughs happening in your immediate vicinity.
Practice stress reduction techniques when you are at work!
Many of you are at work for at least 1/3 of each day, and work is often a huge stress trigger for people. Find ways to incorporate meditation or calming throughout your day. I find that just taking a 15 minute break can really help. Find someplace you can take a short stroll out-of-doors, maybe even barefoot on a lawn. That 15 minutes can be very restorative and give you a fresh perspective.
A lot of my clients enjoy yoga as a way to meditate and reset their parasympathetic nervous systems. Here’s a radio show I did on workplace wellness. You might find some useful tips, plus the individual I am talking with has a unique personal story related to yoga.
Another idea? Take your work meeting out on the road – the road to less stress, that is. Go for a walk instead of a conference room. Have a team activity out on the lawn.
Need I mention that HOW you eat while you are at work and are UNDER STRESS is a huge impact on your digestion. YOU KNOW THIS TO BE TRUE. Eating too fast is so hard on your digestion. Eating junky food just because it is all the vending machine will offer is also very tough on your digestion. 15 minutes of food prep in the morning in order to bring a healthy salad or dish to work is well worth the time!
Control your blood sugar thru diet, proper sleep, and exercise
OK, so why am I bringing up blood sugar? Because high blood sugar stresses your body and digestion. Stress increases your blood sugar! It is a vicious cycle.
When you are stressed and your blood sugar increases, your digestion slows down. Your adrenals are over-worked; you may experience fatigue and inflammation. Your hormones are going haywire. Once again, your gut and mind are connected. One simple start to correcting this is reducing your stress.
So, as you can see, the practiced therapies of yoga, breathing, meditation, along with others such as massage and counseling, if needed, are the foundation keys to reducing stressful habits.
If you are a practitioner looking to increase your understanding of all that is involved with the digestive system, I have recently re-launched my Clinical Mastery of the Digestive System. We went through all the modules, freshened up the content that was there, as well as adding new content. Through this program you will learn more information about how other hormones affect the digestive system along with systems to help your clients back to digestive balance.
If you want to take care of your own digestive disorders, we have our GRAND program – Gut Repair and Alkalizing Nutrition for Digestion. Not only do we talk about stress, but the diet and lifestyle changes to bring you to a harmonious balance with your gut.
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Medical Disclaimer: The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. It is intended as a sharing of knowledge and information from the research and experience of Dr. Ritamarie Loscalzo, drritamarie.com, and the experts who have contributed. We encourage you to make your own health care decisions based upon your research and in partnership with a qualified health care professional.
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