We all know that being in a state of stress is unfavourable for all body systems. It stems from physical, emotional or mental burdens that cause the body’s balancing mechanisms to shift and become dysfunctional.
Typical symptoms of a compromised digestive system can include poor hormone control, impaired energy production, compromised immunity, cardiovascular dysfunction and of course changes in digestive capacity.
As humans we live in a continuous balance between our sympathetic (fight or flight mode) and parasympathetic (rest and digest mode) nervous systems.
We now know that the gut-brain axis governs the relationship between our nervous system and our digestion.
The gut-brain axis is the bi-directional communication between our gut and our brain.
The effects of a frazzled brain due to our high-stress lifestyles may be significantly linked to digestive complaints like reflux, burping, indigestion, fullness, bloating, diarrhoea, constipation, IBS, food allergies or larger issues like inflammatory bowel disease.
Did you know we have another nervous system dedicated entirely to our digestion?
Since ancient times, without the knowledge of exact mechanisms, stress has been known to influence our physical body.
In addition to the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, we now know there is an entire nervous system dedicated to our digestive system called the enteric nervous system.
The enteric nervous system is responsible for digestive secretions, movement, sensitivity, and membrane health and switches on when we are in ‘rest and digest’ or parasympathetic mode.
When we find ourselves in a state of short term or long-term stress it is our sympathetic nervous system (that fight or flight mode) that is overruling our bodily functions causing a dampening of processes that thrive best under parasympathetic control, such as reproduction, sleep, immunity and of course digestion.
Our enteric nervous system switches off when we experience stress which can result in a whole host of digestive issues.
How does our digestive system work?
Our first step in digestion is the release of chemicals in our saliva, stomach and intestines that prepares our gut for the food we are about to eat.
Stress induced sympathetic activation leads to a general inhibitory effect on chemical digestion (the release of our digestive juices).
On top of this, the hormones our body releases in response to stress also effects the movement of our digestive muscles, affecting mechanical digestion (the movement, and churning of food) being either ineffectively too fast or sluggish and slow.
The process of good digestion depends on this release of digestive enzymes.
Consequently, with low stomach acid and low digestive enzymes we not only get symptoms of burping, reflux and stomach fullness but the change in acidity which further influences the release of chemicals in the small intestine.
Without the right messages and acidity from the stomach, we find impaired release of bile from the gall bladder (digesting fats), enzymes from the pancreas (digesting fats, proteins and carbohydrates), and enzymes from our intestinal membranes (digesting carbohydrates).
And this is where our lower abdominal symptoms start to occur and become troublesome.
Improper digestion due to the effects of stress result in poor breakdown of the food we consume
If our enteric nervous system is effectively switched on, then the food we eat should be properly digested into small, soft mush which travels down the gastrointestinal tract to be absorbed efficiently and effectively.
However stress will impair this digestive cascade and rather than the ideal digested ‘small mush’ our body is expecting, food remains large and undigested which causes irritation to the membranes of our intestines.
This irritation of membranes further dampens our digestive enzyme activity and damages our gut lining contributing to leaky gut, immune activation and impaired nutrient release and absorption from food.
Bloating, flatulence, heaviness, pain, diarrhoea and constipation may all arise as a result.
Stress changes our Microbiome
Exposure to stress has also shown to change our microbiome, and in a vicious cycle, changes in the microbiome can further dampen secretions, motility and mucous membrane function.
Large, undigested food molecules, end up serving as a feeding ground for certain microbes that increase fermentation and gas production in the colon. Poor movement and limited bowel motions contribute to constipation and the reabsorption of substances the body is trying to clear.
Conversely, these large food particles can also cause the body to release water and mucous, causing a ‘flushing’ effect to clear the bowels of these undigested irritants, contributing to diarrhoea in some.
Both of which constipation and diarrhoea cause inflammation in the gut.
The solution to stress-induced digestive issues is three-fold
The treatment of stress induced digestive complaints does not ignore the digestive system but rather co-treats the enteric nervous system whilst building our resilience to stress and nourishing our nervous system.
Stimulating the activity of our parasympathetic and enteric nervous system with bitter herbs and nutrients, coupled with using nourishing herbs and nutrients to support the production of calming hormones as well as efficiently clearing stress hormones are effective ways to treat both the underlying factors of digestive complaints whilst also managing those uncomfortable digestive symptoms.
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