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gut health

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Stress and Digestion: The Missing Link



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…

Much love,

Sy

 

 

 

 

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10 Tips for Boosting Immunity this Fall and Winter



Hello!

First off, I want to start out by saying that Fall is absolutely my favorite time of year! Not that it really matters in regards to this post, but I thought you might like to know J  I love the crispness in the air and the break from the exhausting heats of summer. While spring and summer are energetic times for exploration, fun and travel, I equally love the winding down of fall and inward reflection that winter brings. However, the downside of this wonderful season is the increase in colds and flus that rear their ugly heads during the colder months.

 

There are varying opinions on why this happens and research proposes several different theories for the almost unavoidable flus which circulate during school season. Some people think that immunity goes down during the fall and winter months because we spend less time outside and therefore get less immune-boosting Vitamin D. Some believe it has to do with higher sugar intake or the dry air from heating systems. All of these theories have great science backing them up, and each are probably contributing factors, but regardless of the reasons, the fact remains that most people tend to get sicker during fall and winter months.

 

So what to do about this conundrum?

 

Well first, it’s important to understand what immunity is on a broad scale so we then know how to support it in the best way possible. Overall, the reason you feel symptoms of illness is because of the processes going on in your body that are working to kill off harmful bacteria and viruses. You have amazing cells built specifically for the job, but unfortunately, their work (which includes killing off harmful invaders) can leave you with some pretty nasty side effects: Think runny noses, fevers, chills and aches.

 

Often, I hear people bragging about the fact that they haven’t been sick in years. While I’m happy they aren’t suffering, as a Nutritional Therapist, that statement actually raises some red flags for me. A well functioning immune system is one that can work to rid the body of infections before they take up permanent and chronic residence in the cells. While it doesn’t feel good to go through this process, it does signal that your body is doing its job protecting you. Now, to be clear, I’m not referring to illnesses that last weeks to even months, or lingering coughs that won’t clear up. But getting the sniffles for a day or two here and there is a good sign that your immunity is alive and well.

 

Repeated or long-lasting sickness is a different animal and definitely a sign that those immune cells could use some support or reinforcements. If we are constantly bombarding our bodies with invaders, (in the form of toxins, food sensitivities, chemicals and other environmental pathogens), it will have a hard time mustering up the strength to fight off an actual bacteria or virus when it reaches our bloodstream. So, boosting immunity is both a game of removing stressors and strengthening weaknesses.

 

70-80% of the immune system is actually found in the gut and if you stop to think about it, you’ll recognize that your digestive system is actually the barrier between the outside world and the inside of your body. Everything you ingest, knowingly or not, makes its way through your digestive tract to the small intestine where your gut lining decides whether or not it will absorb that substance into your body or reject it. This is called selective permeability. However, food intolerances, antibiotic use, chronic stress, chemical exposures, environmental toxins and other factors all contribute to something called hyper-permeability, or leaky gut. What this means is that your gut lining becomes somewhat leaky and loses its ability to filter between substances it needs and ones it doesn’t. This triggers your immune system to be on alert almost all the time, instead of just when pathogenic bacteria and viruses are able to sneak in on occasion. So, supporting the gut lining and healing any “leakiness” becomes paramount when also working to support the immune system.

 

In no special order, here are 10 ways you can help your body stay healthy this fall and winter season:

 

1.     Sleep – hacking your sleep can be one of the absolute best ways to combat illness in the colder months. Sleep is the time when our bodies repair from damages done during the day. Shorter days traditionally meant more sleep when we needed it most. But now, with artificial lighting and screen time in the mix, we are still pulling long days during the times when our bodies need extra repair. Start by dimming lights in the evening, minimizing screen time at night and giving yourself permission to have earlier bed times and relaxing evenings.

 

2.     Remove food intolerances – Eating a food over and over again that your body is not keen on is highly stressful to an already heighted immune system.         If you’re not sure whether or not you have sensitivities going on, try eliminating the most common culprits for a while to see how you do. The most common include: grains/gluten, dairy, soy, corn, nuts and eggs. I recommend that my clients remove them (either all together or one at a time) for at least 30 days before reintroducing them.

 

3.     Reduce emotional stress levels – Emotional and mental stress play a huge role in gut health. Mental stress raises the hormone in your body known as cortisol, which has several roles in the body. Unfortunately, overly high levels of cortisol have a thinning-out effect on mucosal linings in the body, including your gut. Overtime, this wears down the lining and leads to the leakiness discussed above. Acute stress is not as damaging, but the chronic, long-term stressors most of us feel daily play a big role in this pattern. Find stress-reducing techniques that work for you and try to incorporate a weekly or daily practice. Meditation, walking, therapy, yoga, reading and breathing exercises are all good options for physically reducing stress in the body.

 

4.     Add in gut healing foods – There are certain foods you can eat that act as healers to the lining of your gut. Some of them contain collagen, the main connective protein found in your gut, and some are healing because of vitamins, minerals and other anti-inflammatory compounds. Some of my favorites include: bone broth, cabbage juice, sautéed cabbage, apple cider vinegar, pineapple, ginger, beets, lemon water, butter from grass-fed cows, raw dairy (if tolerated) and healthy oils like avocado, olive or coconut.

 

5.     Add in gut healing nutrients – Sometimes, if significant damage has occurred, food might not completely cover the healing needed. In this case, adding in some quality supplements can be helpful to expedite the process. Some great ones include: Collagen peptides, cod liver oil, digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid. Collage and cod liver oil help to repair the gut lining and enzymes and hydrochloric acid help the breakdown of your food so that when it reaches the gut, it doesn’t irritate it any more.

 

6.     Take a quality probiotic supplement – Assuming you aren’t suffering from a bacterial overgrowth or dysbiosis, adding in a quality probiotic can drastically improve immune function. The microbes in our gut are essentially the choirmasters of the body. They dictate thousands of functions in the body and play a huge role in determining gene expression as well. Technically speaking, there are way more microbial genes in our body than actual human genes, so it would make sense to support these beneficial organisms. Adding in regular doses helps them to colonize, or take permanent residence, in our guts, essentially crowding out other harmful or pathogenic microbes.  

 

 7.     Herbals – If you happen to get sick, there are certain herbal compounds which act as support to your immune cells, helping to fight off infection. Some of the most anti-viral and anti-bacterial ones are: Elderberry, Echinacea, Ginger, Oregano, Calendula, and Astragalus. Always check for contraindications or allergies when starting a new herbal remedy and if you begin to feel worse, or get any new symptoms, it’s a good idea to stop use and check with a doctor before continuing.

 

8.     Up your dose of Vitamin C – Vitamin C, as most of know, plays a large role in immunity and general health. Vitamin C is used by the cells of your immune system to carry out their attacks on pathogenic microbes. By upping the amount of Vitamin C available to them, you essentially make it easier for them to complete their tasks which results in less time spent feeling sick. Using a minimum of 2000 mg/day of vitamin C can be extremely helpful when already sick or as an immune boost during colder months and stressful periods.

 

9.     Add lots of healthy fats to your diet – Healthy fatty acids play a huge role in the inflammatory process in the body. While inflammation has gotten a bad rap over the last couple years, it is actually an integral part of the healing process. Inflammation is sent to an area of the body when that area is in need of repair. You can think of the heat, swelling and irritation as signals that call in the ANTI-inflammatory crew to help repair the damage. Without fats, we are unable to form the inflammatory hormones called prostaglandins which take care of both inflaming and un-inflaming our body during illness. Good sources of fats include: fish, seafood, coconut oil, avocados and oil, olives and oil, grass-fed meats, eggs, pastured meats, liver, nuts and seeds, palm, butter and ghee, tallow and lard.

 

10.  Gentle movement – Your immune system is moved through the body by the lymphatic system, similar to how blood is moved through the body by your bloodstream. Unfortunately, the lymph system doesn’t have a heart which mechanically pumps it through the body and instead relies on the contracting of your muscles to pump it through. This means that gentle, non-stressful movement can be one of the best ways to circulate immune-boosting T and B cells through the body. Walking, running, bouncing on a trampoline, jumping up and down, stretching, yoga, pilates, tai chi, qui gong, and hiking are all great ways to stimulate this movement. If you’re already sick, stick to extremely easy exercises so as not to stress your already tired body even more. 

Until next time, 

Sy

 

 

 

 

 

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