Your digestive system is also called the second brain. This is because food intake and digestive patterns keeps your body healthy. A strong gut means your body can fight infections and diseases. But if you are experiencing stress regularly, you would also have noticed certain changes in your ability to stay healthy.
Have you ever heard of the fight-or-flight response? When you experience stress, your body is essentially being “attacked”. As your body prepares to either fight the perceived stressor or flee from it, activating the sympathetic nervous system. However, your body cannot differentiate the various sources you are getting these stresses from. Are you stuck in a bad traffic jam? Are you experiencing relationship issues? Or is it something as drastic as being chased by a lion or bear?
The fight-or-flight response is our main survival mechanism, so each time we are faced with any stressor, our body becomes solely concerned with fighting or fleeing from the perceived threat.
According to recent studies, “freezing” is also identified as one of the biological responses to acute stress.
The hormone responsible for stress is called Cortisol. This hormone is secreted by the adrenal glands when the body experiences stress. Cortisol secretion is controlled by the hypothalamus, adrenal gland, and the adrenal gland. Together these glands activates the sympathetic nervous system and subsequently the stress response. Excessive levels of cortisol in the body can negatively impact many of the body’s systems and have a significant effect on the digestive system.
During the stress response, cortisol aids in moving blood flow towards the brain, large muscles, and limbs rather than towards the digestive tract. Therefore, our body actually suppresses it in this mode.
On the other hand, the nervous system stimulates the rest-and-digest response. When the body goes into fight, flight, or freeze mode, digestion essentially shuts down. This can be a huge issue for someone who is constantly experiencing stress.
If the body is constantly in a stressful state and cortisol levels remain extremely elevated, problems with the digestive system may arise.
How stress can negatively affect gut motility
- constipation- leads to bloating, gas, and/or stomach pain.
- various gastrointestinal disorders such as IBS, IBD, GERD
- diarrhea- results in nutrient malabsorption which can lead to nutrient deficiencies.
- slows down metabolism – if you eat while you’re stressed (either too fast or too much), it reduces your metabolism due to the decrease in overall blood flow during stress
- Leaky Gut: Normally, the intestinal epithelial lining functions as a barrier, prohibiting the passage of toxins, antigens, and harmful bacteria from entering through the gut lumen. This blocks pathogens from entering into the bloodstream. In the state of stress, the production of corticotropin-releasing hormone by the hypothalamus directly affects the intestinal lining as it increases permeability. Pathogens are able to move through, leading to a term you may have heard called, “leaky gut”. Leaky gut can consequently result in inflammation and irritation of the mucosal lining
- effect on the gut microbiome – It causes an imbalance of good and bad bacteria, as much of the good bacteria is wiped out by the sympathetic nervous system. The gut microbiome plays a large role in the immune system. The gut mucosal immune system acts as a protective barrier for the intestinal tract. If there are pathogenic bacteria present in the gut microbiome and/or not as many good bacteria, this leads to immunity dysfunction and the development of disease
Maintaining your digestive health is important as it reduces risk for development of gastrointestinal disorders. Plus, it can improve your immune health as well, since the majority of your immune system is housed in your gut!
Remedies to prevent stress from impacting your gut health negatively
- use stress reducing techniques such as meditation,
- talking therapy
- listning to calming music
- quality time with nature
- activities that improve your overall mood.
It’s extremely important to explore stressors, and work to lower your perception of stress, to ultimately keep your digestive system healthy. Taking the time to do this will lead to benefits not only on improved digestion and nutrient absorption, but also improving your heart health.