read time: 10-15 minutes.
digestion + stress.
table of contents.
- chronic stress
- maladaptive resource allocation
- the digestive system (gi tract)
- breakdown food and eliminate waste
- gut-brain axis (enteric nervous system)
- gut biome (microbiome)
- what happens to your digestive system with chronic stress
- stress response recap
- digestion shuts down
- all metabolic energy into survival
- signaling between gut and the brain
- stomach disorders
- causing more anxiety and depression
- solutions for combating stress and balancing out the gi tract
- healthy diet and hydration
- whole, organic foods
- probiotics and bitters
- reduce caffeine & screen time
- down time/listen to your gut
if you’re anything like us, you probably love good food. our society has come a long way in regards to whipping up delicious, innovative meals (as well as convenient fast food) so that we can take pleasure in eating and not just do it as a way to survive. not only does food provide us with pleasure, it also gives us the energy we need to function. however, with the madness and stress of daily life, it’s become difficult to ensure that the food we are ingesting is indeed providing us with that energy. when the body is constantly pushed into the sympathetic state, digestion becomes a distant thought and proper nutrient absorption becomes less of a priority. when the stress becomes chronic, resources are consistently pulled away from important functions like digestion, as they are focused on survival mode. when this maladaptive resource allocation comes into the game, we are left with a dysfunctioning body and a rise of even more issues.
how the digestive system works.
let’s begin with a little run-down of what the digestion system is and how it works. the digestive system is made up of the gastrointestinal tract (gi tract - mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and anus), the liver, pancreas and the gallbladder. each one of these organs plays an important role in breaking down food so that we can get that vital energy we need from day to day. when food enters the mouth enzymes in saliva called amylase begin working to break down food. our tongues then push the food down the esophagus where muscle contractions (peristalsis) transport it right into the stomach.
in the stomach.
heading into the stomach, the food is broken down further by gastric acid that is secreted when we smell and taste food. this gastric acid gets after it by separating protein bonds and dissolving the food’s cell walls so the body can reach the nutrients needed for absorption. it also contains hydrochloric acid so our stomachs can eliminate any harmful bacteria that may have snuck in with the food. once the tum is finished moving the food around and doing its digestive thing, a sphincter at the other end of the stomach opens, letting small bits of digested food through to the small intestines. this is where the pancreas, liver and gallbladder come in with more bile to help out with the splitting of proteins, carbs and fats.
throughout the small intestines, nutrients (glucose, iron, and fats) are absorbed into the bloodstream via tiny little protrusions called villi. towards the end of the small intestine, it is now the electrolytes turn such as calcium, vitamins and zinc (important for the immune system) to be absorbed. once the digested food passes through to the large intestine - via more peristalsis - we see billions and billions of good bacteria. these bacteria, the gut flora, are necessary friends as they decompose fiber for energy, produce vitamins, and have our immune system’s back when harmful germs come into play. the large intestines will then remove any extra water so the waste will be ready for excretion from the body.
so, a lot to digest. (get it ;) ). as you can see, the process of digestion has evolved to benefit our bodies and support not just our daily energy levels, but also our illness-fighting functions. and it doesn’t stop there. this may come as a shock, but our digestive systems also happen to have a relationship with our brains! this special relationship is called the gut-brain axis and consists of the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) and the enteric nervous system (neurons located in the gi tract that promote gut motility, immunity, and permeability). the communication that happens between these two systems is bidirectional and mental health is highly affected by it. the tiny bacteria that we mentioned earlier in the gi tract are big players in letting the brain know that all is well. good bacteria (such as lactobacillus) will release a neurotransmitter called gaba to put our minds at ease and cause relaxation, while too much bad bacteria will cause imbalance and an anxious central nervous system response.
digestive system vs. the sympathetic nervous system.
with all this info, it is no shock that our digestive systems should be made a priority. however, with unhealthy food stress on our bodies, along with the chronic stress of daily lives, our digestive systems are commonly getting the short end of the stick. when stress is involved, we know from our previous pieces in the stress series that precious resources are being allocated towards our sympathetic nervous system or fight-or-flight response (fof). cortisol directs energy away from vital processes like digestion and towards the increase of heart rate and blood pressure, adrenaline release, etc. so we can have the ability to fight the threat at hand (the stressful situation). and if digestion is shut down or working at half-mast, we end up excreting nutrients. that meal that you just ate, even if it is the healthiest it can be, will not be broken down properly and your body will not absorb the vitamins, minerals, proteins, etc. that are necessary to function in tip-top shape.
effects of chronic stress.
chronic stress will also lead to a malfunction in the gut-brain axis. in the constant state of fof, our brains will communicate to our enteric nervous system neurons that we are stressed causing irregular gut movement. this movement sometimes feels like butterflies in the stomach, but it also disturbs the natural rhythms (peristalsis) that occur when food is being transported through our gi tract. off-balance rhythm then leads to issues like irritable bowel syndrome and higher sensitivity to our gastric acid (heartburn). these stomach problems can in turn trigger anxiety and the cycle persists. chronic stress → stomach issues → anxiety → more stress → more stomach problems. a never-ending pattern.
to reach a happy digestive state, we need to make sure we are allowing our bodies to come down and hit the parasympathetic nervous system, or ‘rest and digest.’ allowing yourself down time away from screens, caffeine and away from “the grind” is highly important. but it is also just as important to feed your body the good nutrition it needs to encourage good bacteria growth and healthy digestion. feeding our bodies whole, organic food not only provides the body with nutrients it needs to have optimal energy and a powerful immune system, but it communicates to our brains that everything is all good.
highly stressed people often recognize their digestion isn’t where it should be. irregularity, discomfort, bloating, feeling “heavy.” this undeniably has much to do with food choices, but digestion is also heavily influenced by stress levels that prioritize sympathetic activity over parasympathetic activity.
another excellent way to build up wonderful, happy bacteria in your gut biome is to eat foods that naturally contain probiotics. probiotics are microorganisms that contribute and promote balance to these live bacteria and can be found in foods like yogurt or fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi. along with the gaba communication in the brain, these good bacteria also do a bang-up job of helping to break down food, producing vitamins, and assisting the immune system with antibody formation.
rest + digest.
the last tip we want to give that will help combat stress is to start scheduling down-time. providing your body and mind with the tools (good food, exercise, etc.) to promote a healthier lifestyle is important, but without the time to be able to wind down and give yourself a break, the implementation will be impossible. our bodies need ‘rest and digest’ to…digest and in turn give support to other crucial systems: the immune system and central nervous system.
lowering or adapting to daily stress is the catalyst for improving digestion. with high amounts of consistent, chronic stress, the body spends far too much time and intensity in the sympathetic nervous system leading to a downregulation of stomach functioning. support, such as adaptogens, will help prevent the time and intensity spent in the sympathetic, which will allow for “calibration and efficiency” in the gi tract. similar to the downward spiral of stress, poor digestion → poor nutrient absorption → less energy to navigate challenges → more stress → repeat. on the flip side, balancing the stress response will produce better digestion → better nutrient absorption → more energy to navigate life’s daily challenges → more productivity → better mood → less stress. this cycle provides overall improvement of mental and physical health and leads to better quality of life.
- carabotti, m., scirocco, a., maselli, m. a., & severi, c. (2015). the gut-brain axis: interactions between enteric microbiota, central and enteric nervous systems. annals of gastroenterology, 28(2), 203–209.
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