The gut-wrenching effects of stress
We are probably all familiar with the term the ‘gut-brain connection’ which refers to how our mental and emotional well-being is affected by the function of our gut. But did you know this connection is a two-way street?
Stress – those feelings of tension generated by challenging events – has a massive and often detrimental impact on our digestive function.
Acute, immediate feelings of stress can generate short-term changes in our digestion. You might experience this as a change in appetite, or maybe nerves causing you to feel nauseous. But longer-term, chronic stress has a different impact, generally slowing the whole digestive process down leading to sluggishness.
Our nervous system controls our bodies’ interaction with the world around us. Part of it is under our conscious control – we can move, speak and physically interact as we wish. But the other part of our nervous system is under involuntary control – and just as well, you wouldn’t want to have to remember to breathe when you were absorbed in a task!
This involuntary part of the nervous system is called the autonomic nervous system and this is further divided into two branches – the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system we know best as the ‘fight or flight’ response and this is the system that is activated by stress. The parasympathetic branch is the ‘rest and digest’ arm responsible for calming the body down after the danger has passed and engaging in general housekeeping when at rest.
In times gone by, stress was an evolutionary response that kept us alive. See a lion? The body responded by creating an internal alarm. A cascade of hormones and chemicals flood our system, increasing our heart rate, and sending blood to the muscles of our arms and legs so we could run for our lives. In that situation, spending time digesting your last meal would have been rather pointless if you didn’t succeed in escaping the lion!
Today, our bodies still responds to stress as if we saw lions everywhere, causing a disruption to our digestive process. It reduces our flow of digestive enzymes and secretions, reduces the rate at which food moves through our gut, upsets the permeability of our digestive tract and the balance of our innate gut microflora, as well as increasing the sensitivity of our digestive tract. Our body loses stored nutrients and becomes less able to absorb replacement nutrients from food.
All of which eventually leads to progressive and ongoing dysfunction and an increased need for digestive support. Reducing your exposure to stress or improving your adaption to it will provide enormous benefits to your body as a whole. Your digestion, in particular, will thank you for it.