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How Stress Affects Our Ability to Digest Food

Stress is so obvious in modern life! We may not be able to even imagine a human life without stress. Stress has become a universally common phenomenon. The moment we wake up, a new stress cycle begins. Today’s world is a pretty safe place. There is no danger lurking at every step. But the human body, designed for the life-and-death situations our ancestors faced continuously during their hunting days or even earlier, keeps reacting just like in those days.

The changes that impact digestion adversely originate not in the stomach, but in the brain. When the brain senses an emergency, it shuts off or drastically reduces the blood supply to the muscles involved in the digestion, which it classifies as being of secondary importance in such a situation. In ancient times, such a response used to be a temporary happening. Things would return to normal soon and no one would even notice any change in the digestion pattern. Now the stress factor is in operation all the time. So symptoms showing malfunctioning of the digestion track become common.

The origin of stress

When some brain chemicals like serotonin are modified, they affect your mood. They are also a part of the network that sends signals to the gut. Low serotonin creates stress. But stress too lowers the serotonin level, creating digestion problems.
The body responds to a stressful situation by producing chemicals, whose job is to fight for survival. The adrenal glands secrete hormones called cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine. These are meant to achieve a short burst of energy and heightened clarity about the imminent danger. This fight-or-flight chemical response did save the ancient human beings every day from danger. Although such situations are almost non-existent today, the human body continues to react the same old way.

Pressures of modern life
The reasons behind the common stress we live with today include reaching the workplace late, not getting enough sleep, disagreements among the family members, health and financial problems and an inability to bond with the colleagues. Such stress is almost always chronic. You can never get rid of it completely. Something will always keep going wrong and you will hardly ever have a stress-free day.
But our body continues to respond like it did thousands of years back in the life-and-death situations. It cannot distinguish between the levels of danger posed by the different stressful situations. Thus, the modern human being is almost always in the fight or flight mode. That is bad for the body, especially for the digestion.

Sensitive digestive track
The human digestive tract is hypersensitive to any change. You modify your diet or start sleeping at different hours, your digestive system will respond to the change in different ways. Thus, anxiety and stress keep affecting the digestive behavior of the body all the time. This has been more or less accepted by everybody, so much so that most people are not aware of the anxiety-digestion equation.

The fight or flight response leads to the production of adrenaline on a large scale. This makes it possible for the body to marshal extra energy. Adrenaline mobilizes this energy from the glycogen in the sugar stores. The body processes nutrients at high rates, which is not good for it.

Cortisol effects
It may not be realistic to list all of the ways by which stress affects the digestion. Stress maintains high cortisol levels in the body throughout the day. These high cortisol levels

  • Raise blood sugar
  • Weaken the immune function and delay the healing or repair processes
  • Upset the hormonal balance
  • Create more depression and anxiety.
  • Change the motility of the gastrointestinal tract and reduce the secretion of digestive juices.
  • Cause inflammation and inhibit the regenerative ability of the intestinal lining.
  • Spasms in the esophagus.
  • Increase acid in the stomach leading to indigestion.
  • Produce the feeling of nausea.
  • Cause diarrhea or constipation.

The bacteria in the intestine are good and bad. The good ones help you to digest the food. Good and bad bacteria must be in the right proportion. Good bacteria are ‘good’ when they are confined to their goodness by the other good bacteria. If the bacterial balance changes, the stomach becomes a victim. Stress affects this bacterial balance and thereby prevents proper digestion and leads to digestive problems.

Sleep deprivation
Apart from stress, a lack of sleep too can lead to the digestive problems. Sleep keeps the body at an optimum energy level. This ensures that the movement of food is at the right pace and the body’s hormone and enzyme production is normal. However, stress makes it harder to sleep. Sleep deprivation means more physical stress and digestive problems. The increased acids in the stomach have an adverse impact on the food digestion. They modify the food in the intestines and spell more stress. Indigestion produces gas, pain and discomfort. Gas causes chest pain, which triggers the stress attacks.
Thus, chronic stress routinely plays havoc with the digestive system. The symptoms of long-time stress include stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea or constipation. It can lead to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in which cramps, abdominal pain, bloating, constipation and diarrhea may occur in varying intensities.

Stress management
There are, of course, ways to manage stress in order to maintain proper digestion and keep your body healthy. Probably the best and the easiest way to do so is physical exercise. This releases the endorphins, relieves stress and changes your mood into a more cheerful one. Jogging is also very effective in dealing with stress.
Other ways to reduce stress include:

  • Yoga, meditation, music, biofeedback and hypnosis.
  • Talking with friends and loved ones about your stress. Talking with a therapist produces better results. Mental health professionals can teach new coping skills.
  • Eating healthy foods, avoiding overeating and junk food and eating foods that are easy to digest.
  • Rejecting smoking or alcohol to ease stress
  • Rejecting drugs to deal with stress.
  • Ensuring you get a sound sleep of 8 hours each day.
  • Cultivating a social life so that you do not end up inside your house most of the time.

There is no way we can eliminate stress from the modern life. All that we can try and do is to protect ourselves from it by adopting various options suitable for us. We have to modify our eating habits and lifestyle suitably to ensure that we eat healthy and exercise continuously to be able to lead a stress-free life and to have a smooth digestion.

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