The Effects of Stress on Your Digestive Health

One of our functional medicine patients, let’s call them Sam, asked a question this week that I thought might resonate with you.

Sam asked, “I notice that when I have too much work or life shit piling up, my digestive health issues get worse. Do you think it could be caused by stress?”

I told Sam that they were right on the money. It absolutely could. When we think about stress nowadays, most of us think about how it impacts our mental health. We might not even realize that we could actually have a physical reaction to stress. It could be anything from a headache, to bloating, increases in pain or injury, hell you could even gain weight solely because of stress.

The reason why this happens has to do with our nervous system, our autonomic nervous to be exact. Our autonomic nervous system is the part that controls and regulates the basic functions of life that we don’t have to consciously think about. This controls things like heart rate, most of our breathing, dilating or constricting our pupils, and our rate of digestion. The autonomic nervous system then breaks down into the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Big sciencey words, I know.

Most of us have heard the phrase “fight or flight” (there’s actually more to this phrase “…freeze, and fawn” are included as well). This basically describes the role of the sympathetic nervous system. When your body goes into “Oh, shit! We’re being attacked by robot ninjas from outer space with laser beams and photon cannons!” mode that’s your sympathetic nervous system taking over. This will speed up your heart rate, dilate your pupils, increase your core body temperature, and decrease your rate of digestion.

The role of the parasympathetic nervous system is to do the exact opposite of the described above. This is the “rest and digest” nervous system (there’s more here too “…feed and breed” come into play also). So the parasympathetic nervous system slows down our heart rate, constricts our pupils, decreases core temperature, and sends blood flow into our digestive tract and naughty bits.

Are you still with me?

In order for our body to properly digest and absorb food we need to be more parasympathetic dominant. This is why with some of my patients that are dealing with gut issues the first thing we have to do is focus on getting their bodies to relax and recover. Sometimes this includes things like meditation, yoga, eating appropriately for your unique body, and getting adequate sleep. You’d be surprised by how sometimes that’s all it takes.

If you think that your stress might be presenting in a physical way respond please reach out and let’s talk about it more in depth.

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