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Emotional Stress and Your Patients’ Gut Health

Posted Feb 13, 2018

Today’s society seems ever-focused on the high—high tech, high speed, and high stress, that is. Stress permeates all areas of life: job (or frustration with unemployment), finances, family, daily commute, even sleep. All of these areas affect your patients’ emotional state, which directly affects their gut and digestive system health. Surely you have patients that have consoled themselves with food because they’re stressed, angry or sad? Skipped a meal because they were too angry to eat? Perhaps this resonates with you, as well. In either case, read on.

One of the most detrimental effects stress has is disrupting healthy eating habits. When you’re under high stress, eating right, or at all, isn’t high on the list. Outside pressure and a lowered emotional state create cravings for comfort foods—those high sugar, high fat, quick and tasty but nutrient-devoid treats. These junk foods slow down digestion and add to the already disrupted state caused by stress. This creates a vicious cycle of propping oneself up with sugar and caffeine, only to crash and feel worse off.

How do you know if your patient’s gut is ‘stressed’?

Symptoms of stress on the gastrointestinal system include, but are not limited to:

  • Heartburn or indigestion
  • Changes in bowel habit causing diarrhea, constipation, and irritable bowel syndrome
  • Difficulty breaking down food and absorbing nutrients
  • Stomach discomfort or fatigue directly after meals
  • Weakened immune response (more than 60% of your immune system is in your gut)
  • Increase in food sensitivities/intolerance

What can you do to help?

For general stress management, urge them to get one relaxing activity in each day. Have them pick something they actually enjoy, but won’t cause additional stress. Some good options are yoga, tai chi, meditation, massage, swimming, and walking. Assessing their daily diet is a big step. Replace fast foods/processed junk with more natural, healthy options. There are many healthy meals and snacks that can be made in less time than it takes to hit up the drive-thru.

What about emotional distress? In order to truly heal, it is necessary to tackle not only the surface manifestation, i.e. the physical symptoms, but also the emotional stress creating problems. The good news is, adding general stress management activities to their day can help. They may also benefit from keeping a daily journal, which is a healthy way to process and manage things that are bothering them. They can also start a Good Jar. Any time something good happens, regardless of size or significance, have them write it down on a bit of paper and put it in a jar or other container. This helps remind them that good things do happen, even on bad days. They can also revisit the bits as pick-me-ups on rough days.

For some, professional assistance with emotional stress and/or working on a personalized nutrition plan may be the best start. Digestive (and emotional) stress can take time to overcome. Recommend working with a counselor, therapist, and/or nutritionist if necessary. The first step is them taking charge of their own recovery and believing in their power to do so. Don’t your patients deserve to feel better?