Stress is the body's response to dangerous situations, illnesses, trauma, pain, and emotional issues. If you find yourself facing unreasonable deadlines, a debilitating health issue, an accident, or any other issue that is causing you to feel stressed out and burnt out, it may be affecting your gastrointestinal health.
Oftentimes, people will continue to experience digestive difficulties even after the major stress event that first caused their digestive woes passes. Studies have shown that stress can cause or worsen the symptoms of a number of digestive issues, including a peptic ulcer, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
The brain gut connection
If you have ever made a decision based on your “gut feeling” or experienced “butterflies” when you were nervous, you can understand the brain gut connection. Inside your digestive system is the enteric nervous system. This system has two layers of over 100 million nerve cells that line the entire gastrointestinal tract – from your esophagus down to your rectum.
The enteric nervous system, or ENS, controls digestion by releasing enzymes, helps with nutrient absorption, and is even involved in elimination. When you are under chronic stress, the connection between your brain and this nervous system can be altered.
How does stress affect your digestive health?
Chronic stress can alter the makeup of the microflora in your intestines. When this delicate balance is disrupted, it can cause a host of issues, including inflammation, yeast infections, constipation, diarrhea, bloating, and gas. Stress can alter your gastrointestinal secretions and increase intestinal permeability. Increased intestinal permeability is sometimes referred to as leaky gut syndrome. Leaky gut allows partially digested food particles to leave the GI tract and enter the bloodstream.
When you experience stress, the body reacts by releasing stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine. Each of these hormones must be kept in balance. If they become imbalanced, it can interfere with the body's ability to make hormones and neurotransmitters, which can negatively impact digestion.
When you are under stress, the body releases stress hormones to prepare your body for action. The body begins shutting down non-vital functions to provide you with increased energy so that you can react quickly to any perceived dangers. Your heart rate and respiration increase, your muscles tense so you can spring to action, and your digestion slows.
When digestion slows, your digestive system does not receive as much oxygenated blood which leads to decreased metabolism. Furthermore, your enzyme production decreases, and you are unable to absorb nutrients as well as you previously could, leading to even further digestive issues.
What can you do to improve your digestion?
You may be wondering if there is anything you can do to improve your digestion when you are under chronic stress. The answer is yes. There are several things you can do to naturally enhance digestion and relieve many of your digestive woes. Let’s check out the top seven ways to improve your gut health naturally.
Exercise – One of the most effective ways to reduce your stress levels and improve your digestion is to ensure you are getting enough physical activity. It is recommended that healthy adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise each week.
When you exercise, your body releases endorphins. Endorphins are feel-good chemicals that help to improve your mood and lower your stress. In addition to this, regular exercise speeds up digestion, improves energy levels, decreases inflammation, and detoxifies the body.
Stress reduction – Relaxation therapy, such as yoga, biofeedback, journaling, hypnosis, meditation, and prayer can help improve digestion by lowering the stress response. The stress response is a group of physiological and psychological changes that happen when your body perceives a threat, or you are experiencing chronic stress.
The National Institutes of Health reports that the relaxation response experienced during relaxation therapy helps to improve IBS symptoms, including flatulence, constipation, belching, bloating, and diarrhea. The study concluded that Benson's Relaxation Response Meditation was a viable treatment option for irritable bowel syndrome.
Dietary modifications –
Foods that are hard to digest can further impact your digestive system. Foods like junk food and processed food are high in fat, sugars, and nitrates. These unhealthy food items increase inflammation in the gut, reduce digestion, and cause a host of digestive ailments.
Opting for whole foods that feed the body the nutrients that it needs to remain healthy, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, can improve your digestive health. In addition to this, if you suffer from food sensitivities like dairy products, gluten, soy, or corn, you can experience decreased digestion and inflammation; therefore, it is recommended that you avoid these foods completely.
Probiotics – Probiotics are healthy bacteria that help to rebalance the digestive tract. When your gastrointestinal tract is overrun with bad bacteria and dangerous pathogens, you can experience a plethora of digestive difficulties.
A high-quality probiotic supplement can help to decimate unhealthy bacteria and repopulate the beneficial bacteria that aids digestion and nutrient absorption. When choosing a probiotic supplement, ensure that it provides several strains of bacteria to maximize its effectiveness.
In addition to probiotic supplementation, eating fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut can increase the number of beneficial bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract, thus improving digestion.
Supplementation – A high-quality supplement will help relieve your digestive discomforts, decrease inflammation throughout the body and provide the gastrointestinal tract and the brain with the nutrients that it needs to deal with and overcome the effects of stress on digestion.
Look for a high-quality supplement that supports the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands. This type of supplement will help normalize stress and improve the body's response to stress, thereby improving digestion.
Sleep – Getting enough sleep helps to reduce stress levels and improve the bacteria in your gut. It is recommended that you get seven to nine hours of sleep each night. A good night’s sleep can relieve your digestive woes naturally.
To help you get to sleep faster, get better-quality night sleep, and sleep longer, you should practice good sleep hygiene. Good sleep hygiene involves using your bedroom only for sleep, lowering the lights throughout your house at least an hour before bedtime, turning off any blue light emitting electronics (televisions, cellphones, tablets, and computers) a couple of hours before bedtime, and going to bed at the same time each night.
Prioritize – One of the main reasons that Americans experience stress is they are simply too busy to enjoy life. Learning to care for yourself should be your top priority.
Learning to prioritize your time and learning how to say no when asked to take on additional tasks can help reduce your stress levels and heal your gut naturally. Take time to appreciate your life. Laugh often and spend time with those you love. Doing these things will lower your stress level and improve your health.
Although you cannot completely eliminate stress from your life, there are many ways you can relieve stress. Learn to prioritize your time, get enough sleep, take a high-quality supplement, eat a healthy diet, take probiotics, and get the recommended amount of exercise to lower the effects of stress on your gastrointestinal system.