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Stress and Digestion: Effects and Management

Posted Dec 11, 2018

Stress and the Digestive System

Any stress your patients experience, be it physical or emotional, activates the sympathetic nervous system and triggers production of adrenal hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, that prepare the body to deal with the stress. This is often called the “fight or flight” response because, metabolically, the body becomes primed for one of two physical reactions: to run or to fight. Under the control of cortisol, adrenaline and the sympathetic nervous system, the body’s focus shifts from maintenance mode to emergency preparedness. This shift causes a number of effects on the digestive system:

• Secretions are reduced, including saliva, digestive enzymes and protective mucus

• Blood is shunted from the digestive organs to the skeletal muscles, reducing nutrient exchange

• Nutrient absorption is diminished

• Muscular contractions in the intestines become irregular and can create cramping, constipation or diarrhea

• Sphincters close, inhibiting normal movement of food through the tract

• Peristalsis slows, allowing toxins to remain longer in the colon and harmful bacteria to multiply and crowd out the beneficial bacteria normally present in the gut

• Over time the lining of the stomach and intestines can become thin and damaged, creating an environment that allows more toxins to be absorbed into the body

• Immunity in the digestive tract is impaired with these changes

When 21st Century Stress Takes Over

Throughout human evolution, adrenal hormones and the sympathetic nervous system have suppressed digestive function during the stress response. Historically, the digestive system handled these fluctuations with relative ease. Now, stress-related digestive disorders like nervous stomach, constipation, diarrhea, irritable bowel and ulcers have become all too common. The stress response is the same as it has always been, but 21st century stress is dramatically different.

The stress response is designed to physically deal with stress (running from a lion, for example), and the physical exertion helps dissipate stress hormones, quickly moving the body back into balance. However, modern stressors rarely require a physical response, and they tend to last longer and be more pervasive.

For example: difficult relationships, unemployment, unsatisfying work, debts and mortgages affect daily life and may last for months or years. Because the body cannot fight with a loan or outrun a job, the stress hormones are not easily dissipated, and because the stressors do not go away, the brain keeps signaling the adrenals to make cortisol. As a result, digestion continues to be curtailed, with unhealthy consequences.

To make matters worse, it is easy to disregard healthy habits when stressed. Your patients may find themselves downing caffeine to keep going or drinking alcohol to calm down, both of which can damage the digestive tract lining even more.

Sugary comfort foods contain very few nutrients, and sugar actually robs the body of B vitamins and other nutrients, pushing nutritional status even lower. Routinely working through lunch or eating on the run does not give the parasympathetic nervous system (the relaxation response) a chance to even become activated!

If the adrenals fatigue from prolonged stress, digestion can suffer at the same time that food cravings increase because of low blood sugar, and digestive tract inflammation flares up from the combined effects of slower digestion and decreased anti-inflammatory activity by cortisol.

Rescuing the Digestive System

Although it is not possible to avoid all stress, it is beneficial to keep stress at a manageable level and allow the parasympathetic nervous system to have a chance to repair the body. Here are some things your patients can do to help:

• Exercise can help decrease stress hormones in the same way that a physical response to stress worked in our ancestors

• Laughter has been shown to reduce cortisol

• Practice yoga or listen to music – Doing so decreases cortisol and the sympathetic stress response

• Take mini-breaks – Just by standing up from the desk and stretching for a few minutes, or taking time to actually chew and taste a healthy lunch rather than hurriedly gobbling something down, they can encourage a parasympathetic response that supports digestion

• Any activity (not including the use of alcohol or drugs) that allows them to release stress, to relax, or to slow their heart rate helps the parasympathetic nervous system get back in the driver’s seat, repairing the intestines, absorbing nutrients and allowing the digestive system to function normally

Supplemental Support in Times of Stress

In addition to these lifestyle changes, incorporating supplements that provide focused digestive and adrenal support can make a big difference in enhancing the digestive system’s resilience to stress.

For the Digestive System:

• Natural fibers such as psyllium, oat bran, rice bran, prunes, ginger, fenugreek seed and vegetable cellulose help restore normal intestinal mobility

• Digestive enzymes such as papaya or betaine HCl help break down food when the body is not secreting enough enzymes on its own

• Beneficial bacteria, such as lactobacillus and bifidobacteria, along with fructooligosaccharides (FOS) which feed them, can help reestablish a balanced intestinal environment

• MSM and glycine reduce inflammation and help maintain the health of the digestive tract lining

• L-glutamine, glutamic acid and quercetin enhance the integrity of the intestinal lining

• Herbs like echinacea, slippery elm and ginger soothe and protect the intestines

• Nutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin C, zinc, manganese and phosphatidylcholine are important for normal tissue growth and repair

• Mastic gum, MSM, licorice and glycine are anti-inflammatory and may help to soothe and protect irritated digestive tracts

• Ginger helps reduce nausea and vomiting and aids normal movement of food through the stomach

• Goldenseal, vitamin A and echinacea help promote healthy immune function

• Citrus bioflavonoids increase mucus secretion in the intestines and help protect intestinal cells

For the Adrenals and Nervous System:

• Vitamins A, C and E help modulate the stress response

• B vitamins and choline are required for the normal functioning of the nervous system

• Vitamin C is rapidly depleted in stressful times and needs to be replenished in order for the body to continue to handle stress

• Bioflavonoids increase absorption and effectiveness of vitamin C

• Eleutherococcus is anti-inflammatory and helps curb excessive physiologic changes to stress

• Ashwagandha and maca help modulate many of the adverse changes which accompany stress, including elevated cortisol

• Alfalfa helps protect the nervous system

By supporting the body in times of stress, not only will the digestive tract be healthier, but it will provide the whole body with the nutrients needed to be more resilient to stress and live a healthier, more balanced and productive life. For more on Dr. Wilson’s supplements for digestive support, click here. For more on Dr. Wilson’s supplements for adrenal support, click here.

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