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How stress sabotages your digestive health

Last updated on May 23rd, 2024

When it comes to poor digestion, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or simply a bloated tummy, stress can be a major contributing factor. Understanding this connection is crucial for managing and alleviating these discomforts. It can help to remember that your body always has your best interests at heart. Even if bloating or digestive discomfort doesn’t feel beneficial, it serves a purpose in the grand scheme of your survival.

The connection between stress and digestion

When you produce the stress hormone adrenaline and your sympathetic nervous system triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response, your body deprioritises digestion. It diverts blood supply away from your digestive system towards your arms and legs, ensuring your muscles have the energy needed for immediate action. Consequently, when food arrives in your digestive system during this state, your body lacks the resources to digest it optimally. This misallocation often leads to symptoms of digestive distress, as many people unknowingly perpetuate stress through their lifestyle, thoughts, beliefs, and dietary choices.

Stress impacts your digestion in profound ways. When you’re stressed, your body’s priority shifts from long-term processes like digestion to immediate survival needs. The adrenaline surge prepares your muscles for a quick escape or confrontation, sidelining your digestive system since digesting food isn’t deemed essential for your survival. This can lead to a range of digestive issues, from bloating and gas to constipation or diarrhoea. For someone with IBS, this stress response can exacerbate symptoms, making life even more uncomfortable.

In a relaxed state, your body can focus on digesting food efficiently. However, chronic stress means your body is frequently in a heightened state of alert, diverting resources away from digestion and leading to persistent discomfort. This cycle can create a frustrating loop where stress exacerbates digestive issues, and digestive discomfort increases stress, compounding the problem.

Identifying stress as a trigger

If you have been diagnosed with IBS (typically determined after ruling out more serious bowel diseases) or experience chronic bloating despite various dietary changes, medicinal herbs, or medications under professional guidance, it might be time to look beyond conventional treatments. Persistent symptoms could indicate that something deeper needs addressing. Unfortunately, no amount of dietary change or supplementation can compensate for the effects of chronic and unrelenting stress.

Your body might be signalling the need for a change in how you treat yourself or how you think. It’s time to stop seeking quick fixes and start exploring how your perception of pressure and urgency impacts your digestion. Addressing daily worries and concerns that cloud your mind and trigger stress responses even when you’re not in physical danger can have a profoundly beneficial effect on your gut health.

Honouring your body’s signals

Your body might be crying out for you to treat yourself differently. Is it time to stop trying to come up with strategies that will “fix” you and instead begin to explore your perceptions of pressure and urgency in everyday life, and how this may be affecting your digestion? Perhaps you consciously or unconsciously worry what others think of you and your digestion would improve if you reassured yourself that you don’t need the consistent approval of others to survive the way you did as a child. When we address the daily worries and concerns that cloud our brain and are driving the body to experience stress even when we’re not in physical danger, it truly can have an incredibly beneficial effect on our gut health. Instead save your stress response for the times when you really need it – in instances of true emergency. It is time to honour the gut feelings you have, trust your inner guidance and employ measures to both counteract and reduce the activity of your stress response.

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