Stress & Digestion

Why does stress affect digestion?

We all know the feeling of having butterflies in our stomach or feeling nauseous when we’re worried, but why does that happen?

When we’re feeling stressed, anxious, overwhelmed or upset, our bodies are in a sympathetic nervous system state. This is more commonly known as “fight or flight”.

During stressful situations, we release a cocktail of hormones that instructs the body to reroute blood flow from “unnecessary” to “critical to survival” areas of the body. This includes taking blood flow away from digestive organs and sending it to the heart, lungs, and large muscles. From a survival perspective, this makes sense: let’s focus on running from a lion now and we can deal with digestion later.

The problem is that if we’re feeling stressed for a prolonged period of time, our digestion suffers long term consequences:

  • Stomach: Lack of production of digestive enzymes and stomach acid leads to nausea, heartburn or indigestion.
  • Small intestine: If we don’t break down foods well in the stomach AND we have a lack of blood flow to the intestinal tract, we poorly absorb nutrients. This leads to fatigue and other symptoms of nutrient deficiency like brittle hair and nails, headaches, and muscle tension.
  • Large intestine: Poorly broken-down foods become hyper fermented by our gut flora. This leads to bloating and leaky gut.
  • Motility: The normal action of moving food through the digestive tract in a healthy time frame with proper bowel movements is affected. This can cause diarrhea in some people and constipation in others.

Long term stress has other impacts on how our digestion moves, too. It can slow our metabolic rate (causing constipation) through slowing thyroid function. Stress also alters our gut microbiome, impacting our immune system, mood, and appetite. Suffice it to say that stress has a huge impact on our digestion as the foundation of overall health!

So, what do we do?

  1. The opposite of “fight or flight” is “rest and digest”. The key is that you can’t be in both nervous system states at the same time. When you’re feeling stressed, worried, or if you notice that your digestion has been off lately, try taking a few moments before you eat to take five slow, controlled, deep breaths. This pulls you out of fight or flight and moves you into rest and digest.
  2. Focus on your meals. Avoid screens, phones, and other distractions while eating. Sit down and enjoy your food! Eating with others is helpful for the digestive process because keep us relaxed and focused on the meal.
  3. Engage in restorative and restful activities throughout the day. Remember that digestion isn’t just happening while we’re eating, it’s a continual process.
  4. Don’t work out too much. Intense workouts put our bodies back into fight or flight. Make sure your workouts are challenging but not exhausting. A good rule is that if you’re sore two days after a workout, you’ve pushed too far.
  5. Get a good sleep. Sleep inhibits our stress hormones. When we’re more tired, we feel more anxious and irritable, and this is because our stress hormones weren’t sufficiently lowered during sleep. Click here for more tips on sleep.
  6. Seek out support for coping with stress and anxiety. Dr. Chambers may use herbs and/or supplements, adjust your nutrition, improve your sleep and provide stress coping tools to help reduce stress.
  7. Uncover what else may be sabotaging your digestion. Food intolerances, IBS, thyroid issues, candida overgrowth and SIBO are all conditions impact our digestion and are made worse with stress.

Book an appointment to address the underlying cause of your digestive concerns, learn to cope with stress, and get you on the path to great digestion even in the face of stressful circumstances.

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