3 Ways Stress Can Impact Digestion, & What You Can Do About It

May 26, 2021

How stressed are you?  You may not think you are that stressed because many people function at a high level of stress on a daily basis and this becomes their new normal.  Stress is a natural response to pressure when faced with challenges. Illness, work deadlines, or misfortune are examples but it can be brought on by, or anticipation of, any physical or emotional disturbance.  Being very busy, having lots to do and not enough time to do it, high workload, parenting, road traffic, worrying, watching news or violent shows are some other examples. 

In small doses stress is a good thing. It keeps us focused and alert and gives us the push we need to do our best.   Chronic stress, which is what most of our society is experiencing, is the problem.  The sympathetic nervous system, our fight, flight or freeze mode, is constantly on. Since stress affects the entire body, you can bet your digestive health is taking a major hit.   It diverts blood, oxygen and energy away from the digestive system and to the brain, heart and limbs.  Digestion slows down and focuses on storing fat as energy.  Relaxion is the switch to turning on your digestive system.  

Whether or not you feel stressed, your digestion will let you know.  Our emotional state is directly linked to our gut health via the enteric nervous system, or second brain.  Gut motility and fluid secretion increases with stress.  This can show up as diarrhea or frequent urges to urinate before, during or following a challenging event.  Changes in bowel patterns, abdominal pain, bloating or indigestion after meals and the need to always know where to find a bathroom are signs something is not right. 

It has been found that stressful life events are associated with the onset of symptoms, or worsening of symptoms, in several digestive conditions such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), peptic ulcer disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).  Not to mention that having a digestive condition can be a source of stress and anxiety in itself.  

3 ways stress impacts your digestion

Reduced stomach acid (HCl) and digestive enzymes:  Food is meant to be chewed well as this act releases digestive enzymes in your mouth and that stimulates your stomach to release the necessary HCl and more digestive enzymes to help break down your food.   When we are eating in a rush and otherwise stressed, we tend to eat too quickly and miss this step, which means we produce much less of these substances.   Stress hormones such as cortisol, noradrenaline and adrenaline are released when we are in this state and this halts digestion and the release of these secretions. When food cannot be broken down properly it increased bloating, indigestion, heartburn and nausea. 

Compromised nutrient absorption:  The impact of not having enough HCl and digestive enzymes is that your food cannot break down enough to properly absorb nutrients.  Optimal levels of HCl are needed to separate minerals from protein and not having enough can hinder the absorption of iron and magnesium for example.   This can contribute to many different symptoms such as feeling tired all the time, hair loss, muscle cramps, mood changes and high blood pressure.

Gut dysbiosis: Stress leads to a decrease in the diversity of gut microbes in the intestines, the gut microbiome, and increases the number of potentially disruptive bad bacteria.  This increases gsatrointestinal permeability and inflammation, psychological impairments and increased susceptibility to illness and infection.  This can manifest as a plethora of gut symptoms such as diarrhea, constipation, bloating, heartburn, stomach cramps, joint pain, anxiety, depression, acne, eczema, brain fog and more.

3 tips to ease into relaxation and turn on the switch to your digestion

Relaxation therapy:  Mediation, progressive body scanning, yoga, breathwork are ways to incorporate more relaxing activities into your day.  In addition to it switching on your parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for optimal digestive function, it will provide an opportunity to check in with yourself.   Observe how stress affects you.  Does it settle in your shoulders, perhaps you clench your jaw or have stomach aches?  The more you can connect to your body, the more you can learn how to help yourself.  

Try sour or bitter flavours:  Bitter herbs are used to stimulate the digestive system, liver, intestines and stomach.  Sour tastes stimulate acid and enzyme production.   This can aid in relieving constipation as it improves sluggish digestion.  Try adding bitter foods to your diet such as watercress, chicory, roasted dandelion tea and artichokes.  Lemon is the perfect sour taste and easy to add some to warm water.  Just remember to use a straw to protect your teeth enamel. 

Mindful eating:  Taking some deep breaths before you start eating helps to turn on that switch for your rest and digest mode of your nervous system.   Be mindful of eating slowly, perhaps putting down your cutlery in between bites can help tap into this.   Do not underestimate the power of chewing your food.  Chewing thoroughly until it is almost a paste really cuts down on the work the rest of your digestive system has to do.  It is one of the first stages of digestion and if it is not being done well enough, your stomach and intestines are under even more pressure when they’re already under functioning.

If you notice any change in your digestive function it is important to speak to a healthcare practitioner who will ask the right questions and perform the necessary testing to determine the cause.  If stress is considered to be a major factor, which most of the time it is, addressing the source of the stress is a priority.  If you have tried these tips or know something is off and you still need help, I am here to help you.  Take action by booking a complimentary discovery call so we can discuss a plan to get you feeling your best.

Take action by booking a complimentary discovery call so we can discuss a plan to get you feeling your best.

Click below to book an appointment with Dr. Ramlal.

Dr. Ramlal believes that we can all be the best version of ourselves and this starts with taking care of our health.  We are worthy of having the life we want and doing all the amazing things we want to do.  She is passionate about looking at the bigger picture of the factors that shape our health and curating strategies to help others reach their greatest potential. Dr. Ramlal has a strong belief in creating a space to cultivate growth, awareness and fostering the mind-body connection to nourish the foundations of health. As a clinician, her area of focus is helping those with digestive concerns such as irritable bowel syndrome, break free from the constraints of diarrhea, bloating and constipation that are keeping them from living and feeling their best.

I would love to hear from you, let’s connect on Instagram @drroxanneramlal

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