We all know being in a state of stress is unfavourable for all body systems. It stems from physical, emotional or mental burdens that cause the body’s balancing mechanisms to shift and become dysfunctional - from poor hormone control, impaired energy production, out of whack immunity, cardiovascular dysfunction and of course changes in digestive capacity.
As humans we live in a continuous balance between our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
When looking towards the nervous system and its relationship with digestion we are talking about the gut-brain axis. The gut-brain axis is the bi-directional communication between our gut and our brain. The effects of a frazzled brain due to our high stressful lifestyles may be significantly linked to digestive complaints like reflux, burping, indigestion, fullness, bloating, diarrhoea, constipation, IBS, food allergies or larger issues like inflammatory bowel disease.
Since ancient times, without the knowledge of exact mechanisms, stress has been known to influence our physical body. In addition to the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, we now know there is an entire nervous systems dedicated to our digestive system called the enteric nervous system. The enteric nervous system is responsible for digestive secretions, movement, sensitivity, and membrane health. When we find ourselves in a state of short term or long-term stress it is our sympathetic nervous system that is overruling our bodily functions, causing a dampening of processes that thrive best under parasympathetic control; such as reproduction, sleep, immunity and of course digestion.
The cascade of digestion
Our first step in digestion is the release of chemicals in our saliva, stomach and intestines that prepare our gut for the food we are about to eat. Stress induced sympathetic activation leads to a general inhibitory effect on chemical digestion (the release of our digestive juices). On top of this, the hormones our body release in response to stress also effect the movement of our digestive muscles, affecting mechanical digestion (the movement, and churning of food) being either ineffectually too fast or sluggish and slow.
The cascade of digestion depends on chemical digestion. With low stomach acid we not only get symptoms of burping, reflux and stomach fullness but the change in acidity also influences the release of chemicals in the small intestine. Without the right messages and acidity from the stomach, we find impaired release of bile from the gall bladder (digesting fats), enzymes from the pancreas (digesting fats, proteins and carbohydrates), and enzymes from our intestinal membranes (digesting carbohydrates) to be insufficient.
This is where our lower abdominal symptoms start to become trouble.
Improper digestion due to the effects of stress result in poor breakdown of the food we consume. What should have been properly digested into small, soft mush travels down the gastrointestinal tract still large and causes irritation to the membranes of our intestines. The continued irritation of membranes further dampens our enzyme activity and disrupts barriers contributing to leaky gut (which has its own blog!), immune activation and impaired nutrient release and absorption from food causing deficiencies.
Bloating, flatulence, heaviness, pain, diarrhoea and constipation may all arise as a consequence.
Exposure to stress has also shown to change our microbiome, and in a vicious cycle, changes in the microbiome can further dampen secretions, motility and mucous membrane function.
Large food molecules end up serving as a feeding ground for certain microbes that increase fermentation and gas production in the colon. The progression of this leading to dysbiosis and SIBO.
Poor movement and limited bowel motions contribute to constipation and the reabsorption of substances the body is trying to clear. Whilst, on the other hand, large food particles can cause the body to release water and mucous causing a flushing effect to clear the bowels of the irritants, contributing to diarrhoea in some. Both of which constipation and diarrhoea cause inflammation in the gut.
The treatment of stress induce digestive complaints does not ignore the digestive system but rather co-treats the nervous system and our resilience to stress. Stimulating the activity of our parasympathetic nervous system through bitter herbs and nutrients that support the production of calming hormones and that clear stress hormones are effective ways to treat the underlying factors whilst tending to the uncomfortable symptoms from the get go.