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Most of us have direct experience of how chronic, or intense psychological stress can affect the digestive system. Ancient practitioners of Chinese Medicine also theorized that the gut (particularly the Liver) was the seat of emotions. Modern science explains this phenomena, discovering that up to 90% of our neurotransmitters and hormone are actually produced in the gut.
What Happens to Digestion When We’re Stressed
Something not many of us know, at least logically, is that the digestive system is in fact governed by the Central Nervous System, namely a sub-branch of the nervous system referred to as the “parasympathetic nervous system”. In essence, the parasympathetic system is our “rest and digest” state. Only when we are relaxed and free of stress does the parasympathetic system and therefore digestion, activate.
When we enter a state of stress, the counterpart to the parasympathetic system; the sympathetic system, activates. This stress state or the “flight or fight” response shuts down digestion by reducing blood flow to the digestive organs, inhibits digestive fluid secretion, and instead sends the blood and biological energy to muscular-skeletal system to prepare for battle.
When the sympathetic system is chronically stimulated by prolonged stress, it can lead to gastrointestinal disorders, inflammation and weaken the immune system.
One example of how stress can cause common digestive issues is by causing the esophagus to spasm and altering stomach acid secretion. This leads to heartburn, acid reflux and can make you feel nauseous. Another example is the effects stress has on the colon. Intense stress increases the secretion of stress hormones cortisol, prolactin and serotonin, which can cause the colon to become hyperactive or tense, which leads diarrhea or constipation.
When any of these conditions become persistent, the inflammation and overall poor functioning of the digestive system can eventually lead to stomach ulcers, IBS, and inflammatory bowel disease.
How to Manage Stress for Better Digestion
Reducing total stress is not a quick-fix job, it requires a holistic, multi-factorial approach. However, psychological stress is one of the primary, dominant stressors that negatively affect the digestive system. While getting a handle on the causes of psychological stress can take time, there are some simple things you can do to mitigate their effects.
One simple way to de-stress is to engage in fun, moderate exercise. Physical exercise relieves tension, gets us out of our heads, improves our mood by releasing endorphins but also helps with the elimination of stress hormones. Some of the healthiest forms of exercise include walking, hiking, biking, swimming, dancing, yoga, thai qi, and weight lifting.
Other great ways to reduce stress include:
Relaxation – People with digestive issues are often overly stressed and do not relax enough. Getting authentic, deep relaxation is more challenging in today’s world, but can be achieved through yoga, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, cognitive therapy, biofeedback, good music, spending time in nature, camping, love-making, and working on an enjoyable project or hobby.
Communication therapy – A major source of psychological stress dwells in the world of communication. In fact, most stress and problems in life have their roots in communication trouble. If you’ve ever been in a situation where you didn’t know what to say, or someone wasn’t talking to you, you know the stress associated with poor communication. Taking courses or reading books communications can be helpful for improving our quality of life, relationships and reducing a great source of stress. However, simply having a good friend or loved one you can talk to freely about your stress can be a major stress reliever. Personally, I have found cognitive therapy to be a major help in relieving chronic stress in my life. There are even studies that have demos rated a 70 percent improvement in stress symptoms after 12 weeks of cognitive therapy.
Nutrition – A bad diet can ruin a good digestive system. Poor nutrition can be a source of biological stress, but also, eating the right foods can help curb the effects of stress. In general, it is helpful to eat more protein and salt when stressed. In fact, soldiers in the army are required to eat a higher protein diet to mitigate the catabolic effects of combat. So, it is best to take a two-sided approached nutritionally, where you avoid junk foods that add to your stress, and eat nutrient-dense, wholesome foods that help replenish a stressed body.
Choose your battles – An interesting thing about life is that problems seem to be valuable. If we had no problems at all, we’d be existentially bored. So, the goal is not to eliminate all problems and stress form our lives. Instead, we need to pick our problems wisely. For example, starting a new fulfilling relationship will have its challenges, but in the end, the problems are usually worth it. Same goes for starting a new project or goal. A good rule of thumb is that any given condition in life would ideally be 80% pleasure with 20% pain, the pain being the optimal amount of stress that just makes like interesting and helps us grow.
Mental and emotional stress can cause a lot of problems for an otherwise healthy digestive system. Stress all together is unavoidable, it seems to be a natural part of the game of life. What’s important is how we react to our stress and problems, and that we ultimately avoid it from becoming chronic. If you know you are under too much stress and/or having symptoms of digestive stress, then these tips will help. If stress management is the problem, there are cognitive therapists, yoga and medication instructors who can provide verified help.