Updated: Sep 21, 2021
When you think of stress what part of the body do you think of? A racing mind? A pounding heart? And when you think of digestion, it's likely your mind moves to your stomach. So what is the relationship between stress and digestion? Interestingly enough, digestion involves the nervous system - which is highly affected by stress. You weren't wrong for thinking about the brain when we discussed stress. In fact, your brain communicates with your nervous system all day long. In moments of stress, your sympathetic nervous system turns on the "fight or flight" response. And it isn't any wonder why your body wouldn't be doing its best digesting while trying to outrun a bear. Unfortunately, we spend more time in this fight or flight state than our ancestors and because of that, we begin to see the effects of stress on digestion.
Short Term Effects of Stress
Surprisingly, stress can begin to cause issues with the gut and digestion almost immediately.
Look out for:
Constipation or Diarrhea - Stress hormones affect how the GI sphincters contract. This change can affect the speed at which food moves through the small intestines leading to diarrhea or constipation. Research in the journal of medicine shows that people are more likely to have chronic constipation if they are experiencing high levels of stress.
Bloating and Cramping - The slowed digestion caused by stress can cause bloating and cramping.
Heartburn - Stress's effect on lowering stomach acids can be a trigger for indigestion and heartburn. While this sounds counterproductive for heartburn we actually find that people who don't produce enough stomach acids are prone to heartburn.
Long Term Effects
Being in a constant state of fight or flight has consequences for the gut and digestion.
Look out for:
Irritable Bowel Syndrome - While it's not clear if chronic stress can cause IBS, it is clear that chronic stress can make your digestive issues worse.
Increased intestinal permeability - Stress has been linked to leaky gut when undigested food particles are able to cross the gut barrier and "leak" into the bloodstream. Researchers believe that a leaky gut may be a trigger for chronic diarrhea and inflammation.
Nutrient deficiencies - While in the fight or flight state, the body is not able to digest and absorb nutrients optimally. This can lead to a range of health issues and hormonal imbalances. A simple blood test will show us where your nutrient levels are. Vitality medical providers will use the Vitality Baseline Panel to get a good snapshot of your nutrient levels and your body's ability to absorb nutrients.