What You Need To Know about Stress And Your Digestion

Things go wrong in the body for a lot of reasons. When we have a health crisis it is not because of chance but because of something real that is going on. There are a lot of different reasons that you can be unhealthy or disrupted. Many things can cause the same set of problems to show up. That is what stress is. Stress is not just what we commonly think of it as today. Mental and emotional stress is only one part of the equation when it comes to your health. Your exposure to processed foods, pollution, toxins, not sleeping properly or having your circadian rhythm out of sync are all stressful on the body. Your gastrointestinal tract is profoundly affected by all of these types of stress. When things are not going as they should with your digestion, you must take a look at the total amount of stress your body is under. 

What do you do about all of this stress?

Realistically you would want to do what you can to reduce all of these stressors and ideally eliminate some of them. What you cannot eliminate you want to be aware of. Take care of those things you know are causing you stress and use strategies that help to lower that stress response within the body to help heal the gut. 

A stress response in your GI tract can have an effect on things like inflammatory bowel diseases like Chron’s disease and Ulcerative Colitis both of which fall under the category of Irritable Bowel Syndrome or IBS. If you have food sensitivities or leaky gut you have a stress response. If you have a parasite or bacteria within the gut you have a stress response. When you have inflammation you have a stress response. 

There are many theories about IBS and how it happens or starts to affect someone. It probably isn’t just the stress on your body but that is definitely a factor contributing to such problems. What is known is that if you have a problem with an IBS disorder, how it affects you can be drastically different than how it affects your neighbor and the major factor in that is the load of stress on your body. 

One of the first things you will see a change in is peristalsis (an involuntary muscle contraction in the intestines that causes a wavelike movement pushing the stuff in your gut forward so it can eventually exit the body). When this mechanism stops working properly you can have cramping, bloating and even pain in your gut as well as toxins being reabsorbed due to slower elimination. 

The enzymes secreted along the way to help digest your food are also affected. You are no longer breaking down proteins or neutralizing the stomach acid as it moves through the small intestine causing inflammation in the gut. The hormones that tell you that you are full are all messed up too so you can end up over eating and overwhelming your digestive system. This can lead to leaky gut or intestinal permeability and the vicious cycle continues. You can end up with food intolerances and or even an autoimmune response. 

You are equipped with a nervous system that can put you in more of a relaxed state (parasympathetic) or in that fight or flight (sympathetic) state. Your body naturally maintains a flow of both without any help from you. The problem with most of us is that we are often in a constant state of fight or flight with very little time being in the rest and digest period which is a stressor and affects digestion. This also means that there is no time where your body can repair itself properly. The rest and digest state is also when you are in a state of repair. When your body doesn’t have time to heal you end up with problems like IBS or leaky gut. 

When you have leaky gut you probably also have an imbalance of gut flora too. There is a group of bacteria that plays a role in shifting your hormones.  The flora in your bowel affects the stress response within your gut. If your gut flora is not properly balanced it can create hormonal issues in the body. The hormones affected are things like cortisol, testosterone and estrogen among others.  When your body produces hormones there are conversions that happen in the liver and in the intestines to make them useful or to change them and excrete the leftovers. When there is an imbalance of flora in the gut and the bowel, these conversions don’t happen like they are supposed to. You can have no conversions happening or you can have too much conversion going on. It really depends on the balance of flora that you have. 

Besides reducing stress like controlling the stressors outside the body like our food and some of that mental emotional stress we can make sure to keep our circadian rhythm in check. What that means is you need to be looking at what time of day you go to sleep or wake up. Is it the same time everyday? Do you eat about the same time every day?  All of this is very important to how your digestion (and really your body in general) responds. 

Here is what you can do to help your circadian rhythm:

  • Eat breakfast no later than one hour after you wake up and eat some protein for breakfast.
  • Expose yourself to some sunlight right away. This will help you get a deep sleep at night and it will help make sure you break down the protein in your breakfast. 
  • Go to bed early. This will help you get the most restorative sleep where your body can then repair itself. Studies show going to bed before midnight allows this repair cycle to work much better. The earlier the better though (we were naturally set up to sleep and rise with the sun for the most part).  
  • Shift work is extremely hard on your body. You can’t always avoid it but if it is not required of you, try not to do it. If you have to do shift work you are better off maintaining a schedule with it. Just know that it is best for your body to at least have consistency. 

Being in this constant state of stress causes your body to store and hold on to fat around your organs. Your body is thinking it has to do it for survival. Your innate intelligence thinks there issome sort of need to come (like a change in the season or a long period of fasting) for this fat so it hangs on to it. It stores it for fuel. This stress response by the body can affect the digestive state and it can be affected by the digestive state. You see, the more inflamed you are in your intestines, the more your body will think it is in a state of stress which makes it more likely you will store your fuel as fat instead of burning it up right away. So just by having poor digestion you will gain weight. Stress is stress to your body. It can’t tell the difference between what is real and what is in your head. The stress response is pretty much the same. 

A good place to start to see where your intestinal inflammation is coming from is doing an elimination diet. You do have to watch for a shift in your gut flora once you eliminate something and add it back in after a time though. Your gut flora changes based on what types of foods you consume so be aware that you may see some reaction from something you previously had no reaction to before. Keeping track of each food you are adding back in and how you feel is a good idea. It can really help you pinpoint exactly what foods might be causing you distress. 

Other things you can do to minimize the stress response in your body: 

  • Maintain balanced blood sugar and use resistant fiber/starch. Your body doesn’t completely digest the fiber so it helps to feed the good bacteria in your gut which helps lower inflammation. 
    • Great sources of resistant fiber/starch are boiled and cooled potatoes, green bananas, green plantains and white beans. 
  • Breathing alternately through your nostrils is another way. It will reset your nervous system. What you do is plug one nostril while breathing in through the other, then unplug the other nostril and plug the one you just breathed through and breath out the one you unplugged. Continue to alternate doing this for a couple minutes. 
  • You can also just work on breathing slowly through your diaphragm. Just some deep slow breaths any time you feel yourself getting worked up. 
  • Mediation- just about 5-10 minutes a day is helpful. 
  • Cool down your room when you go to bed and keep your room as dark as possible. This helps you sleep much better. 

Let’s work on figuring out your digestive issues together. I am currently taking new clients and would be honored to work with you. You deserve to feel better!

In Health, 

Stephanie