Do you ever feel like you’re doing all the right things, eating all the right foods and taking all the right supplements, yet still struggle daily with digestive issues like bloating, cramping, diarrhea, constipation, indigestion or heartburn?
If so, you’re not alone. In fact, a survey done a few years ago in 2013 showed that a staggering 74% of Americans are affected by some sort of gastro-intestinal upset every single day. 74% you guys! That means 3 out of 4 people are walking around with symptoms right now that are not only painful and interfering, but also often embarrassing.
So here’s the thing. There is so much good information out there on digestive support: how to help heal stomach acid production, increase enzymes and eat foods that are healing to your body. In fact, I am constantly preaching to my clients and people I meet about quality digestive aids and tangible ways to reduce symptoms. But, the even more important part that doesn’t make headlines, and what I’m determined to make a splash about, is the connection between our brain and gut, aptly called the gut-brain axis.
Let me say it in a one-liner: Stress makes good digestion impossible.
Let that sink in.
Stress, both chronic and acute, emotional and physical, make good digestion impossible.
Now, that might irritate you to no end (stress reduction tends to be a bit difficult to nail down for “doers”), or it might excite you as the missing piece of the puzzle you’ve desperately been trying to figure out. Either way, today we’re going to dive into why, despite your best efforts, you’re still not getting the relief you’ve been searching for.
The Gut-Brain Axis.
We’re gonna nerd out for a quick minute, so stay with me here…
The system in your body that controls all of your automatic processes, like breathing, digestion and your heart beat, is called the Autonomic Nervous System. Within this system, there are two divisions called the sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic division is your “fight or flight” control board. It’s the system that gets turned on and tuned in when you’re under physical or emotional stress, essentially amping up adrenaline and other hormones and neurotransmitters so get you ready to deal with that stressor. All in all, it’s a life saving system that serves us very well in times of acute stress. Acute meaning intense but short lived. The second division is the parasympathetic, also referred to as your “rest and digest” mode. This is the system that is turned on during times of relaxation and rest. You can think of the two systems as balancing. The sympathetic system will increase blood pressure, say during exercise, and then the parasympathetic will decrease it once the exercise is over. Push/pull, yin and yang.
When these two systems are working optimally, all is well. But what tends to happen in our modern day culture is that we get into what is called Sympathetic Dominance, or chronic stress. When this happens, the body systems, hormones and processes triggered by the sympathetic system stay turned on too much and the systems, hormones and processes triggered by parasympathetic take a back seat. This includes digestion.
Digestion is a parasympathetic activity, hence the name “rest and digest.” Historically, and ancestrally, if you are running from a saber tooth tiger, the last thing your body is thinking about is digesting your lunch. It’s working instead to pump blood out of the internal organs and into the arms and legs to give you energy to run and making large amounts of adrenaline and cortisol to keep blood sugar levels, and hence energy levels, high so you feel alert.
Now, our bodies and brains are smart in a lot of ways, but they are also fairly simplistic in others. One of these ways includes our inability to distinguish between chronic, ruminating stressors like traffic and fights with our spouse and actual danger. We are living in a culture that is sky high in fear, negativity, power struggles and emotional warfare. You get on the freeway and your life is literally on the line every time someone swerves in and cuts you off. We eat processed junk that barely resembles food and make our bodies work ten times as hard processing it. We can’t stop thinking about how much our boss pisses us off and picture all the things we’d say if we ever got the chance. We spend so much time staying busy avoiding painful feelings that we load our schedules up with school, activities and family and friends leaving hardly any time to pee, let alone eat or breathe. We exercise because he hate our bodies and hope they’ll change not because because we love them and want to see them thrive. And here’s the crazy part: All of this is considered normal and functional by 99% of our society.
But here’s the thing, living in this kind of world, the kind we create in our minds where everything happens TO us and our lives are an endless to-do list, puts us in a constant state of fear, worry and stress, thereby making it impossible to enter into a parasympathetic state that is so vital to our health and wellness.
Some of the ways stress affects the health of our gut:
1. Decreases the production of gastric juices like stomach acid, which is a critical trigger to every other digestive process and breaks down proteins. The whole cascade is affected by low stomach acid.
2. Decreases gut motility, or your digestive tract’s ability to physically move your food along. This allows food to ferment and putrify leading to gas and bloating.
3. An over-production of cortisol breaks down mucosal barriers, which are the thin line separating your stomach and gut from the rest of your body, leading to leaky gut. Leaky gut is bad news for everyone involved.
4. Harms healthy bacteria and allows pathogenic bacteria to thrive in the changed gut conditions. Our beneficial gut bacteria make up 80% of our immune system, so you can see why we want these guys healthy and alive!
These are just a few linear examples of how stress directly affects digestion, but keep in mind that the body is a complex web of processes that all affect each other in different ways. The main take-a-way here though should be that even when it seems like all the other conditions for good digestion are in place, if you’re body isn’t able to access that parasympathetic state, it will become compromised in one way or another.
So, now, what to do?
Here are a few of my favorite ways to make sure I stay in a parasympathetic state most of the time.
1. Do some deep breathing exercises before your meals. 5-10 deeps breaths in and out through your left nostril automatically puts you in a parasympathetic state by stimulating your vagus nerve. If you’re not in a place where this is possible, try to chew slowly and avoid putting more food before you’ve had the chance to swallow your last bite. This methodical eating signals to your brain that everything is good and it can relax and let go.
2. Pick up some sort of daily meditation or mindfulness practice. This isn’t something you do during your meals necessarily, but putting your body in a relaxed, concentrated state for specific times during the day signals to the brain that it’s ok to let go. This in turn signals to the body that it too can let go and you can see how the cycle continues. The more time you spend practicing these states of being, the easier it becomes to call upon them as needed.
3. Be kind and gentle to yourself about the foods and meals you are eating. If you’re a woman, chances are you’ve had some nasty thoughts about your body at one point or another. It’s sad that so many of us have felt body shame during our lives, but we’re working to change that! In the mean time, giving yourself permission to enjoy and love your food helps shift your mindset and recalibrate your nervous system to feel good, again, relaxing your body.
4. Think of something or someone you love. Spending time every day considering all the things we love and are grateful for in our lives has a calming, relaxing effect on the body’s systems. Next time you find yourself struggling with an emotional stressor, try stepping out of it for 60 seconds and begin listing off the things for which you are grateful. At the end of the minute, you can come back to the problem at hand, but I’m betting it will look and feel very different. This allows you to come from a place of love rather than fear and goes a long way in healing the body and mind.
5. Spend time with loved ones. We all have those days where we’ve made commitments with friends but now feel like backing out because we’re too tired or stressed or just don’t feel like it. But positive social connections go a long way in reducing levels of stress and anxiety. Next time you feel like canceling, I urge you to get up out of your Netflix binge and do it anyway. Your digestion will thank you. J
So there you have it. While this isn’t nearly the entire picture or every nuanced aspect of how stress and digestion are connected, it should paint a picture that is worth looking into if you haven’t quite nailed down your digestive distress yet.
Until next time…