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Can Stress Cause Digestive Issues?

gut check Jul 08, 2020

Stress is s physical or psychological condition that requires a response to survive. But did you know that is a correlation between stress and digestive issues?

I think it’s safe to say that since 2020 we have all experienced a new level of stress. Along with that stress, you may have started to notice an uptick in your digestive issues as well. You might be 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?

Cortisol, The Stress Hormone

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 a stressor that is as subjective and can be 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 about 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 the relationship between stress and digestive issues.

Can Stress Cause Digestive Issues?

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 perceived “scary threat”. 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 digestive issues I see associated with 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!

Stress and digestive issues go hand in hand because stress is diverting blood flow away from our digestive organs and slows peristalsis.

Gastric secretions are inhibited as well when the body senses stress in preparation to flee from the stressor. Stomach acid is an important component of proper digestion. Without stomach acid, microbiome imbalances can arise which increases the digestive symptoms so many suffer from. 

Stress and the Immune System

While stress can cause more digestive issues, it also can be related to immunity issues.

Prolonged stress reduces the number of secretory IgA (sIgA) produced - the first line of defense of our immune system in our mucosal lining, which includes the digestive tract. Down modulation of SIgA associated with stress can have negative repercussions on intestinal function and integrity.1

Have you ever noticed how you tend to get sick after a really stressful event has happened?

I also notice 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 Reduce Digestive Issues When Stressed

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 4 deep belly breaths when you feel your stress level increasing. Breathe in for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, and out for 4 counts. 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. Additionally, the more you chew your food the more you are supporting digestion.

  • 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.




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