Feeling a little stressed lately?

gut check Jul 08, 2020

Stress is s physical or psychological condition that requires a response to survive.  But did you know that stress can also be impacting your GI function?

I think it’s safe to say that 2020 has brought about a whole different level of stress.  Along with that stress, you may have started to notice some changes in your GI status.  Maybe you’re feeling more gassy and bloated.  Or, perhaps, you’ve been a little more constipated than normal. Yes, that could be attributed to the dietary choices but did you know that it could also be related to stress?

Fight or Flight

We are either operating on the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous system.  The sympathetic nervous system is also known as the “fight or flight” response.  The parasympathetic nervous system is known as the “rest and digest” response.  

Stress can be classified as either eustress or distress.  Eustress is viewed as subjectively and is physiologically beneficial as it helps with adaptation and /or can be withstood without the result of disease.  Distress is viewed as subjective and physiologically harmful as it cannot be sustained and can contribute to disease.  Physical stress is usually objective and psychological stress is usually subjective. 

Here are some examples of both:

Physical Stress

  • Bodily trauma like a car accident

  • Infections

  • Lack of adequate sleep

  • Exercise

  • Consuming inflammatory foods

Psychological Stress

  • Intentionally not getting enough sleep (7-9 hours is ideal)

  • Encountering a threatening situation - ie. being chased by a bear

  • Toxic unhealthy relationships

  • Negative self talk

The thing with stress is that our body cannot differentiate between physical and psychological stress.  It will activate the same response within the sympathetic nervous system - fight or flight to save your life.  If we are chronically stressed and living in the fight or flight state, our overall health can really be impacted.  I’ll cover more specifics about adrenal health and cortisol dysregulation/HPA axis dysregulation in future posts.  Today let’s focus on my favorite - GUT HEALTH and how stress affects it.

Stress and Digestion

As you can see from what I’ve shared with you so far, our parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for our nice calm state of mind where rest and digestion are optimized.  Conversely,  when the sympathetic nervous system is activated, the last thing our body is thinking about is proper digestion.  Or reproduction or other metabolic processes like weight loss, hair, skin, or nail health for that matter.  Instead, your body is prioritizing saving your life to outrun a “scary threat” it is perceiving.  Even if that “scary threat” is the loss of a job, financial burdens, toxic relationships, or insomnia.  Eating inflammatory foods or continued caloric restriction can also be a stressor on your body. 

Prolonged stress affects the body’s ability to heal.  In fact, the cells in our digestive tract repair and replace themselves every few days.  So when something is “not right” it’s one of the first places we notice symptoms.  The common symptoms I see with clients who experience chronic stress are gas, constipation, and bloating.  How many of us are taking the time to sit down and enjoy a meal versus eating on the run?  Those afternoon siestas actually aren’t that bad of an idea to give our body the opportunity to properly digest the food we ate after all!

While increased stress is diverting blood flow away from our digestive organs and slowing peristalsis it’s also reducing the number of secretory IgA produced.  Secretory IgA (sIgA) is the first line of defense of our immune system.  Ever notice how you tend to get sick after a really stressful event has happened?  The trend I notice is that proper food and nutrition are often also not prioritized during stressful times.  Throw that on top of an already weakened immune system without proper digestion and we’re headed down the road of increased food sensitivities and leaky gut.

Tips to Support Digestion

So what can you do to get back on track with proper digestion during stressful times?  Check out these tips!

  • Meditate. Even just 1 minute of eliminating distractions will help evoke the parasympathetic nervous system.

  • Take 5 deep belly breaths when you feel your stress level increasing.  Bonus if you can remove yourself from the situation even if momentarily.

  • Take a break to eat away from your desk.  I prefer to go outside or sit by a window.

  • Slow down to eat to give your body the appropriate time to digest and signal when it is full.

  • Ask for help with your growing “to-do” list and/or delegate tasks.

  • Make 7-9 hours of sleep a night a priority.

  • Release the things that you cannot control. (Easier said than done, I know).

  • Prioritize whole nutrient-dense food and limit alcohol, sugar, and processed foods.

The information available on this website is for general health information only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. You should not rely exclusively on information provided on the Website for your health needs. You can read more about our disclaimer here.

There’s no one-size-fits-all fix to health concerns and symptoms. Why? Because there’s no single, standard issue body out there! My processes don’t conform to any standard prescription. They’re fluid, diverse, and customized to accommodate the uniqueness of each body, each lifestyle, and each individual’s differing needs.
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