I think it’s fair to say that stress levels are running at an all-time high right now, with 2020 challenging many of us like never before. Stress can decrease quality of sleep and affect our mental health, but did you know that it can also have a significant impact on our digestion? This is thanks to the gut-brain axis, with nerves within the intestinal lining (the enteric nervous system) known to communicate directly with the brain, and vice versa.
Digestion-related symptoms associated with stress
Altered gut motility is a known symptom of both short-term and prolonged stress. This is the speed of food/stools passing through the digestive tract, and can be both increased and decreased by stress. Do you find you make more frequent trips to the loo when you’re under pressure? Or maybe you notice that in periods of chronic stress you just can’t ‘go’ at all. Paradoxically both diarrhoea and constipation are linked to increased stress.
If you imagine nerves within the enteric nervous system being fired up by stress, then it will come as no surprise that conditions such as IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) are exacerbated when levels rise. In fact, stress may be a trigger for IBS in the first place, with symptoms including pain, bloating and the aforementioned diarrhoea/constipation.
How digestive dysfunction can increase stress
On the flip side it is understood that gut dysfunction can add to the body’s stress load itself. Causes could include:
- inflammation within the gut lining
- ongoing intestinal permeability issues (a ‘leaky’ gut – ironically possibly triggered by stress in the first place)
- unwanted visitors such as parasites, yeasts and/or pathogenic bacteria
- underlying food sensitivities add to the body’s stress load
When anxiety from daily life is already challenging the body, working to resolve these issues may go a long way in helping to improve digestive function and the associated symptoms.
How can I reduce levels?
I understand that this is often easier said than done. Self-care plays a huge role in this, taking time out to focus on your mental wellbeing on both a weekly, and daily basis. Approaches to try could include:
- focusing on calming and slowing the breath, both before meals and at points during the day when stress levels can be felt to rise. This is the technique I like.
- getting outside in nature on a daily basis, whatever the weather
- gentle exercise each day – walking, swimming, dancing round the kitchen to your favourite song
- meditation and yoga
- taking time out with a book and a cup of tea
- enjoying a warm bath (not too hot!) at the end of the day
- turning off social media and phone notifications for a few hours
- taking time to laugh – play games with your children, chat to a friend, watch a comedy
And if you suspect that gut issues may be a contributing factor, then working with a nutritionist to identify possible causes and support your digestive health could be a good place to start. Please feel free to email me if you would like to discuss this further.