If you have ever “choked under pressure” or felt your “stomach in knots” when faced with a difficult decision, you are familiar with the powerful ways in which stress can influence digestion. Emotions create physiological changes in your body, and stress is no exception. In broad terms, stress refers to any real or perceived threat or demand. Such stressors elicit adaptive responses within the body as you attempt to maintain homeostasis and ensure survival.
Stress can be acute, in response to a large threat like a fire, or chronic and insidious, usually from aspects of your daily life. Lifestyle factors can also increase your level of stress. These include:
- Imbalanced diet
- Physical overtraining
- Not getting enough sleep
- Having a job you don’t enjoy
- Negative thinking
The Brain-Gut Axis: How Emotions Impact Digestion
The digestive system is particularly vulnerable to the presence of stress, especially when it becomes chronic. This is because the nervous system and digestive system are closely intertwined in what is sometimes called the brain-gut axis.
The walls of your digestive tract are infiltrated by a network of nerve fibers called the myenteric plexus, which contributes to the enteric nervous system. This enteric nervous system is part of your autonomic nervous system, which receives signals from your brain and is sometimes thought of as a second brain within your gut. You have likely experienced this brain-gut connection before when you sense a “gut feeling,” “butterflies in your stomach,” or anxiety-induced nausea.
The biochemical and hormonal changes that occur in response to emotional stress have immediate and often persistent impacts on digestive health. The physiologic stress response is geared toward survival, so it focuses energy on dealing with the threat at hand, sacrificing processes like digestion and repair. Depending on the severity of the threat, this may cause your digestion to slow down or stop completely.
Stress induces changes in:
- Gastric secretion
- The movement of food through the digestive tract
- Intestinal permeability
- Blood flow
For example, it has been long known that severe stressors like surgery or trauma can cause the intestinal lining to become “leaky.” More recent research is also exploring the impacts of chronic psychological stress on this important gut barrier. Overall, these impairments in normal digestion can lead to:
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Imbalanced metabolism
Emerging science also demonstrates that the microbes, which inhabit your digestive tract and play many important roles in your health, seem to respond directly to stress-related signals. This stress-induced disruption of the microbiome can increase susceptibility to infections, influence weight, and impact metabolism.
Over time, chronic exposure to stress may contribute to the development or worsening of a variety of more complex digestive diseases, including:
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Peptic ulcer disease
- Food allergies
Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to help manage the stress of daily life and improve your digestive health. Stress reduction strategies are key to healthy digestion as well as longevity, weight balance, and robust immunity.
Get Moving to Balance Stress
Moderate exercise is one of the most effective ways to manage stress and maintain healthy digestion. Physical activity relieves tension, improves blood flow, and stimulates the release of endorphins from the brain, which improve your mood and reduce the impacts of stress. Practices like tai chi and yoga that coordinate the breath with movement can be especially effective at reducing the state of constant hyperarousal, which is detrimental to digestion.
Cope with Life Stressors with Regular Relaxation
There are many effective relaxation practices to help you cope with the inevitable stress of life and minimize its impacts on your digestion and overall health:
- Deep breathing exercises
- Tai chi
- Spending time in nature
Deep breathing triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which activates processes involved in rest, repair, and digestion. When the body is in parasympathetic mode, blood flow and oxygenation to the digestive tract is increased, making digestion more efficient. Techniques like progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, and mindfulness meditation are also effective ways to shift into a more parasympathetic state, which favors relaxation and healthy digestion.
Build a Stress-Resistant Gut with Probiotics, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, and Vitamins A and D
A healthy gut, which houses a balanced microbiome, is more resistant to the negative impacts of inevitable stress. Omega-3 fatty acids, fat-soluble vitamins A and D, and balanced probiotics can all help heal the intestinal lining, reduce inflammation, and provide a diverse array of beneficial bacteria. This makes your digestive tract more resilient to the harmful impacts of stress.
Avoid Negativity to Heal Your Gut
Negative thoughts are a large contributor to stress in modern life. Learning to recognize your thoughts through mindfulness or other meditation techniques allows you to change your mindset. This not only helps reduce chronic stress, but can also help you make healthier food choices that improve digestion. Anxiety, depression, and other unresolved emotions are often at the root of overeating and poor food choices that can further stress digestion.
Positivity and compassion improve the function of the vagus nerve, which is crucial in the communication between the brain and digestive system. Practices such as loving-kindness meditation can increase your optimism, which in turn helps to balance the nervous system and positively affect digestion.
Explore What Your Digestive Symptoms Can Teach You
Your digestive system can be viewed as a barometer for how you are coping with life. Digestive symptoms often provide insight into the root of what is causing your stress, allowing you to move toward healing.
For example, if you are prone to constipation you may explore where in life you are unable to let go. If you have chronic heartburn, you may look at where you might feel you have been “burned” or where you are holding onto a grudge or resentment. Exploring your digestive symptoms from this metaphorical perspective can help you notice your emotions, process them, and release them so that you can better cope with stress.
The next time you notice a gut feeling or your digestive system is acting up, honor this insightful system by paying attention to what might be going on in your life. When you learn to understand your emotions and responses to stress and adopt healthy ways to manage stress like those presented in The Whole Cure, you can more effectively digest both food and life.
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*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.