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Stress and Digestion: 10 Things You Should Know

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

In the hustle and bustle of modern life, stress has become an unwelcome companion for many. But did you know that stress and digestion are connected?


In this article, we delve into the intricate relationship between stress and digestion, exploring ten essential insights to help you understand, manage, and improve the two important aspects of your wellbeing and avoid gastrointestinal distress.

Stress and Digestion: 10 Things You Should Know, Dr Deborah Brunt, Otepoti Integrative Health

1. The Gut-Brain Connection

Stress and digestion are closely intertwined through the gut-brain connection, also sometimes known as the gut-brain axis.


The gut is often referred to as the "second brain" due to its vast network of neurons and neurotransmitters that communicate with the brain. It is a two way communication line with the gut transmitting information to the brain and the brain transmitting information to the gut.


When stressed, your brain releases signals that can influence gut function, leading to symptoms like indigestion, bloating, and altered bowel habits.


Mast cells are important effectors of brain-gut axis (Konturek 2011). They translate psychological stress signals to the gut via the release of a wide range of neurotransmitters and proinflammatory cytokines.


These biochemicals profoundly influence gastrointestinal function, and in the presence of acute or chronic stress can contribute to digestive problems.


2. Stress and the Gut Microbiome

Your gut microbiome is a diverse community of microorganisms living in your digestive tract.

Gut bacteria can be affected by stress.


Chronic stress may disrupt the balance of these microbes, potentially leading to an increase in gut bacteria that promote inflammation, gastrointestinal discomfort, and changes in appetite.


3. Autonomic Nervous System Involvement


The autonomic nervous system (ANS) plays a critical role in regulating organs and bodily functions, including the gastrointestinal tract and digestion.


Stress triggers the "fight or flight" response through the sympathetic nervous system branch of the ANS.

This diverts resources such as blood flow away from digestion and towards muscles for immediate survival needs.


This can slow down digestion, and reduce production of digestive enzymes leading to symptoms like bloating and constipation.

The "fight or flight" response, indicates to the body that there is danger and it inhibits the "rest and digest" mode of the parasympathetic nervous system. This means there is reduced vagus nerve input, stimulating normal gut function.


Did you ever feel butterflies in your stomach?


This expression is used to convey the physical sensations that can accompany emotions like anxiety, or stress.


These sensations are the body experiencing the "fight or flight" response with it's increased stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.


4. Stress and Leaky Gut


Stress can have an impact on the tight junctions in the intestines that keep undigested food and other toxins from entering the bloodstream.


Under chronic stress, inflammation increases and these tight junctions become looser, which is leaky gut. It is known in the academic literature as increased intestinal permeability.


Leaky gut leads to a higher risk of developing food-related sensitivities (Nakano 2022), digestive issues and is increasingly being linked to chronic diseases such as:

  • endometriosis,

  • autoimmune diseases (lupus, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis),

  • chronic fatigue syndrome,

  • fibromyalgia,

  • arthritis,

  • allergies,

  • asthma,

  • acne,

  • obesity,

  • depression and anxiety (Vijay 2021).

This is why it's important to decrease stress where possible or relieve stress with relaxation therapy and other stress management skills in order to keep the gut healthy and prevent gastrointestinal distress.


5. Stress and Appetite Changes

Stress can influence your appetite, leading to overeating or undereating.


Some individuals may turn to comfort foods high in sugar and fat, which can exacerbate digestive discomfort.


Others might lose their appetite due to stress-induced nausea or anxiety. Gastric distress can give you a stress stomach ache.


6. Stress-Related Gastrointestinal Disorders

Chronic stress has been linked to gastrointestinal disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), where symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, and irregular bowel movements are exacerbated by stress.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease can be aggravated by stress.

Additionally people who have inflammatory bowel disease can experience flares of their condition due to stress.

Managing stress is crucial in alleviating these symptoms.


7. Natural Approaches to Reduce Stress to Help Digestion

Incorporate stress-reduction techniques into your routine to support both your mind and digestion. It helps to induce the vagal-mediated 'rest and digest' state.

Reducing stress through natural approaches can have a profound positive impact on your overall wellbeing as well as maintain healthy digestion. Here are several effective strategies to help you manage stress in a natural and holistic way:

  1. Mindfulness Meditation: Practicing mindfulness involves focusing your attention on the present moment without judgment. Regular meditation can help calm your mind, reduce stress hormones, and enhance your ability to cope with challenges.

  2. Deep Breathing Exercises: Deep breathing techniques, such as diaphragmatic breathing or the 4-7-8 technique, can activate the relaxation response, lower stress levels, and promote a sense of calm.

  3. Yoga and Tai Chi: These mind-body practices combine gentle movements, breath control, and meditation. They can improve flexibility, balance, and mental clarity, while also reducing stress and anxiety.

  4. Journaling: Keeping a journal allows you to express your thoughts and feelings, helping you process emotions and gain perspective. Writing down your worries and then focusing on positive aspects can be particularly therapeutic.

  5. Progressive Muscle Relaxation: This technique involves systematically tensing and then relaxing each muscle group in your body. It helps release physical tension and can promote a sense of calmness.

  6. Engaging Hobbies: Pursuing hobbies you enjoy can be a great way to take your mind off stressors and engage in activities that bring you joy and satisfaction.

Stress and Digestion: 10 Things You Should Know, dr deb brunt, otepoti Integrative Health

8. Mindful Eating

Mindful eating is a practice that encourages you to pay full attention to your eating experience, engaging all your senses and being present in the moment.


It involves being conscious of the food you're consuming, the way you're eating it, and your body's response to it.


Mindful eating enables the body to feel calm, safe and present.


This practice can have numerous benefits for both your physical and mental wellbeing.


Practical Tips for Mindful Eating:

  • Sit down at a table to eat, rather than eating on the go.

  • Use smaller plates and utensils to encourage appropriate portion sizes.

  • Take a few deep breaths before starting your meal to center yourself.

  • Put your fork down between bites to avoid rushing.

  • Engage your senses by noting the colors, textures, and flavors of your food.

  • Check in with yourself halfway through your meal to assess your hunger level.

  • Reflect on your eating experience after you're finished.

9. Balanced Nutrition: Best Foods for Digestion

Your diet can influence stress levels and digestion. Incorporate nutrient-rich foods that support both aspects.


A balanced diet for healthy digestion focuses on incorporating a variety of nutrient-rich foods that support optimal digestive function. It includes:


Fiber-Rich Foods: Include whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts. Fiber promotes regular bowel movements and helps prevent constipation.


Lean Proteins: Choose lean protein sources like poultry, fish, tofu, and legumes. Protein supports a healthy gut lining, tissue repair and overall body function.


Healthy Fats: Opt for sources of healthy fats such as avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive oil. These fats aid in nutrient absorption and support a healthy gut lining.


Probiotic-Rich Foods: Incorporate yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi to introduce beneficial bacteria into your gut, enhancing digestion and gut health.


Hydration: Drink plenty of water throughout the day to aid digestion and maintain proper bowel function.


Drink Digestive Teas: Herbal teas such as ginger, peppermint, and chamomile can help relax the digestive muscles and reduce stress.


Moderation: Enjoy treats and indulgences in moderation to avoid overloading the digestive system with excess sugar, salt, or unhealthy fats.


Limit Processed Foods: Minimize consumption of processed foods high in sugars, additives, and unhealthy fats that can disrupt digestion and cause imbalance in your gut bacteria.


Remember, individual nutritional needs can vary, so consider consulting a healthcare professional or registered dietitian to tailor a balanced diet that suits your specific requirements and supports your digestive health.


10. Prioritize Sleep

Quality sleep is essential for managing stress and maintaining optimal digestion. Lack of sleep can contribute to stress-induced digestive discomfort. Create a relaxing bedtime routine and aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night.



Stress and Digestion: The Takeaways

As you navigate the intricate relationship between stress and digestion, remember that prioritizing your mental and physical wellbeing is essential.


The gut-brain connection, the involvement of the autonomic nervous system, and the impact on the gut microbiome all emphasize the interconnectedness of these two aspects of your health.


By incorporating relaxation techniques, mindful eating, and balanced nutrition, you can take proactive steps to manage stress and support a healthy digestive system.


Remember, seeking professional guidance and making gradual changes can lead to lasting improvements in both your stress levels and your digestive comfort.


Your journey towards holistic wellness begins with understanding, compassion, and the commitment to nurturing both your mind and body.


References


Konturek PC, Brzozowski T, Konturek SJ. Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options. J Physiol Pharmacol. 2011 Dec;62(6):591-9.


Nakano N, Kitaura J. Mucosal Mast Cells as Key Effector Cells in Food Allergies. Cells. 2022 Jan 19;11(3):329.


Vijay A, Valdes AM. Role of the gut microbiome in chronic diseases: a narrative review. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2022 Apr;76(4):489-501.

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