I keep getting the question, “Is stress causing my digestive distress?” And it’s a legit question no doubt.
Stress and Digestion
You don’t think they can be related.
But, in fact, they are.
According to Harvard,
The relationship between environmental or psychological stress and gastrointestinal distress is complex and bidirectional: stress can trigger and worsen gastrointestinal pain and other symptoms, and vice versa.
Let’s start by referencing another post, Endocannabinoid System and Your Gut.
- The gut and brain communicate with each other, mostly via the vagus nerve, but also via the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS).
- The ECS (endocannabinoid system) is involved with digestive motility, nausea, intestinal inflammation, gut permeability, cancer cell proliferation, and complex interactions with probiotic bacteria of the intestines.
That post refers to a basic anatomy fact, the enteric nervous system (or ENS).
The enteric nervous system (ENS) is a web of sensory neurons, motor neurons, and interneurons embedded in the wall of the gastrointesinal system, stretching from the lower third of the esophagus right through to the rectum.
Knowing those simple facts, it becomes a little easier to see the direct correlation between stress and digestion; brain and gut.
So much of what happens in the brain affects what happens in the gut.
In fact, think about something as simple as what happens the moment you think of eating your favorite food.
Your mouth begins to salivate. The mind instantly thinks the stomach is hungry (at the very least an intense craving comes on).
This is part of the digestive process, which begins before food even touches your mouth. The brain begins to anticipate food coming, producing saliva (approximately 1-1.5 liters of this liquid is produced daily).
So if the brain is where it starts, then what happens if you are completely stressed prior to that first bite?
But stress is likely not what you believe it to be.
Our bodies endure multiple stressors each day.
When we think of stress we tend to automatically think of stress in these ways:
- Work is overwhelming. I’m stressed.
- My car just broke down. I’m so stress.
- Did I pack everything for the kid’s lunches tomorrow?
- How am I going to have that tough conversation?
And yes, those are “normal stress” events.
In fact, many of the below would also be considered normal stress.
However, true stress is so much more.
What is Stress?
Stress can be placed into five main buckets, which include:
Overwork, excess exercise, chemicals, junk food, accidents, surgery
Pollution, noise, temperature extremes, electromagnetic fields, toxins
Illness, allergies, pain, chronic disease, hormone changes, aging, malnutrition
Marriage, moving, work, daily hassles, caring for an ill loved one, loss, financial worries, birth, death
Anger, fear, anxiety, frustration, negative thoughts, depression, sadness, grief
(Taken from The Whole-Food Guide to Overcoming Irritable Bowel Syndrome by Laura J. Knoff, NC)
Is Stress Causing My Digestive Distress?
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With all these daily stressors, of course stress could be causing or worsening your digestive distress.
Sometimes I have people say to me,
I’m not eating anything different, but I’m still flaring up.
After looking at their various current lifestyle factors (because remember, this isn’t just about food!) it becomes apparent that stress could be the current flare-up cause. Any number of things may be acting as “the straw that broke the camels back.”
In fact, stress – any and all kinds – are part of the third pillar for A Gutsy Girl’s 3 Pillars for Ultimate Gut Healing.
It’s the third pillar, lifestyle, and it is, by far, the most difficult pillar to conquer.
Can I Get Rid of Stress Completely?
Once it’s fully understood that stress can and does cause digestive distress, the next thing everyone wants to know is,
Can I completely get rid of my stress?
And the answer is, “No.”
But, in fact, not all stress is even harmful.
There are two forms of stress: acute stress and chronic stress.
- Acute stress: short term – helps with focus and performance
- Chronic stress: long term – can damage health
The stress that is harmful is, of course, chronic stress.
When the body is under chronic stress, the sympathetic nervous system is activated too often. Here is brief information on the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
Sympathetic Nervous System
- “fight or flight’ mode
- slows digestion and flow of food to prepare for action
- is activated by stress
Parasympathetic Nervous System
- “rest and digest” mode
- controls digestion, sexual arousal, salivation, urination, deification
- slows under stress to conserve energy
[I have a whole post around this fight or flight mechanism. Read more about it HERE.]
When the body is under this chronic stress, more than digestive distress occurs.
10 Digestive Consequences of Chronic Stress
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- Increased belly fat
- Food intolerances and allergies
- Leaky gut
- Elevated blood sugar levels
- Increased inflammation
- Altered microbiome
- Increased acid reflux, indigestion, GERD, and ulcers
- Intensified IBS symptoms
- Increased risk of developing SIBO
- Lowered immunity
So how do you know if you’re actually under stress? And how can you manage it?
23 Stress Symptoms
Here are 7 stress symptoms:
- Acne. Gut-brain-skin.
- Easily agitated. Are you on edge and snapping more than usual?
- Feeling overwhelmed.
- Having difficulty relaxing and calming/quieting the mind.
- Avoiding other people.
- Chronic anxiety.
- Decreased energy. The effects of too much stress can be draining.
You can grab all 23 HERE.
I have ample ways to manage stress. You can start with THESE 8 stress management tactics.
To be honest, though I have already written a ton about stress and managing it, there is still so much more to share.
Please leave a note for me in the comments below if I can help address any other aspect of it for you.
Your Stress-Reduction Goal
Your goal is to identify as best you can the root to any and all stress.
Listen to your body to know if something is truly acute stress or if it has become chronic.
Though removing it completely is not likely an option, if you want to heal your gut, you’ll focus on reducing any and all chronic stress.
Get help in reducing stress.
If you liked this post, you might also enjoy:
- Endocannabinoid System and Your Gut
- Vagus Nerve Stimulation
- The Importance of Shifting from Stress to Happiness
You will heal. I will help.