Stress Disrupts Digestion

December 19, 2016 (Updated: August 22, 2018)
Lily Moran

Please, right now, take a deep breath…and then exhale slowly…and then let your shoulders relax. Good—you’ve just un-stressed, and protected your all-important digestive system against this pervasive health threat.

Yes, it’s that simple, and it’s that important.

A little hurts. A lot can kill.

We all know that stress is a major source of disease. But as our busy days race by, we drop our guard, ignoring or just accepting the minute-by-minute comings and goings of stress.

We shouldn’t just let that be.

One of the most ancient parts of our brain is the one that manages the hormones involved in the fight or flight response. It was once the key to our survival, giving our ancestors the burst of energy to flee from predators or attack prey.

It’s still an essential part of our mental and emotional arsenal. If it weren’t there, we’d all have been run over by trucks.

How stress can ruin a nice meal

What else is going on while those hormones are pumping through us?

Nothing. Fight or flight is the only thing on our mind.

Feeling hungry? No time for that. Digesting what we’ve already eaten? Nope. Just fighting or fleeing.

We don’t often face that kind of severe stress in our daily lives. But even the low-level stressors that we ride up and down like a roller coaster hit our digestive systems hard. Work worries, traffic jams, poor sleep, family tensions and even negative thoughts all throw our digestive system off track.

Add the threats posed by the standard American diet—over-processed, over-sugared, pesticide- and antibiotic-laden non-foods—and your gut really doesn’t have a chance to do its job properly. The result can be cramps, diarrhea, constipation, bloating, pain—any and all of these symptoms are far too widespread.

These symptoms are stressors in themselves, so a vicious circle can begin—stress causes gastro upset, gastro upset causes stress.

Lose-lose.

The gut is the heart of the matter

And what happens when our digestive system goes offline? There can be a number of different responses:

Heartburn affects some 20 percent of Americans, and drives a booming industry in antacid meds. The cause is often an important little muscle, the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), failing to do its job.

The LES sits between your throat and your stomach. When it functions properly, it lets food pass down from throat to stomach, and allows only vomit and burps to rise up from stomach to throat.

But stress can cause the LES to spasm and let our very potent stomach acids rise into our very tender throats.

Hello, heartburn. It’s one of those “Oh, well, it’s just a little heartburn” moments that we too often take as routine. And yes, a natural antacid alternative will give some relief, but just like any other sensitive, unprotected flesh, a burn hurts—and leaves its mark.

When heartburn is chronic, those marks are re-aggravated over and over. They become inflamed, and your risk of disease soars.

Immune system mayhem is another serious stress-related outcome. We all know that our gut is inhabited by “good” and “bad” bacteria. The good bacteria, together, make up around 70 percent (some say more) of our immune systems’ remarkable defensive powers. They also help us digest food, and play vital roles in billions of complex chemical interactions that help us function properly.

When you’re stressed, not only does your digestive system slow or shut down—your good bacteria take serious losses, and your immune system is compromised.

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Stress also reduces your overall blood circulation. Your brain, your arms and your legs get all the blood, so they’re ready for a fight or a flight. So if you carry stress to your dining table, your metabolism can’t do its job properly.

Finally, two of the hormones produced when you’re stressed, cortisol and insulin, tell your body to store fat instead of burning it. Long-term outcome? Gaining weight or difficulty losing it.

Reducing stress

I highly recommend any and all of the classic stress reduction practices that have worked for centuries.

Meditation, mindfulness, tai chi, qi gong, regular exercise…all can work wonders to reduce stress and help you live a longer, healthier life.

But what if you could also eliminate the causes of stress?

Eliminating stress

A great deal of recent research has identified clear links between our thoughts and beliefs and our health. The differences between an optimistic and a pessimistic outlook, and the half-full versus half-empty perspective, turn out to have direct health consequences.

Let’s suppose that most stress has its origins in beliefs. In reality, for example, the pessimistic “glass is half empty” point of view is nothing more than that—a belief.

Yes, there may be reasons why someone believes in a certain way, based on personal history. But yesterday is not today, and it’s certainly not tomorrow.

So if you’re a pessimist, the stress you experience—anticipating a bad outcome, like traffic making you late for work, for example—and especially the harmful chemical reactions it causes—are they necessary? No.

Can a thought really create a physical response? Yes. Try thinking about eating a lemon—without your salivary glands making your mouth water. Try thinking about the scariest movie you’ve ever seen—without getting goose bumps.

Here’s how to help get your powerful thoughts working for you—to reduce or even eliminate the stress that interferes with your digestive system.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps people change negative, counterproductive thoughts and behavior that cause stress. It works by uncovering often hidden emotional sources of stress—how past experiences work to distort present perceptions. This practice involves working with a therapist.

Relaxation therapy uses several techniques designed to help people relax and reduce reactivity to stress, including progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, and restful music. It’s like meditation—but you don’t do it alone. A coach helps you through each practice until you can manage it on your own.

Gut-directed hypnotherapy combines relaxation therapy with positive thoughts focused on your gastrointestinal function.

Ask your doctor if these might help with your symptoms.

Are you too stressed?

If you have serious gastrointestinal issues with no identifiable medical cause, too much stress becomes a prime suspect. There are many other lifestyle factors in play, of course—your diet, exercise, the air you breathe, the digital smog created by millions of electronic devises all around us.

These make a diagnosis of “too much stress” difficult. In the end, it all comes down to how well your body—and your mind—are handling the inevitable stress American life throws at us every day.

I have all my patients take a saliva cortisol test, because cortisol output by your adrenal glands is an excellent measure of your body’s response to stress. You can do this test by yourself, at home or out and about—you just spit into a tube at four different times of day, then mail the samples to the diagnostic lab, who will send results to your doctor.

But I have to emphasize that the paramount message here is that your thoughts and beliefs create, or dismiss, stress.

That means, as always, that you’re in charge of your health, and good choices will lead to good health.

References

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