Stress and Digestion

What is Stress?

To understand what stress might be doing to our digestion we first need to understand what happens to our body when we are stressed. Like animals, we are programmed to react to danger with a physical response, which is known as ‘ Fight – or – Fight Syndrome’ and this response is how our cave-dwelling ancestors would have reacted when confronted by a tiger. Without it, we would not have the energy to survive encounters with dangers.

Stress Hormones

Though stress starts in our brain when we become aware of a stressor, the hormones that begin the stress response comes from our adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are the two small triangular glands that sit on the kidneys. They are endocrine glands, which means that they secrete the hormones they make directly into the bloodstream. The major stress hormone influence almost every body function.

How Stress Makes Us Feel

If we are stressed, we might feel anxious, nauseous, teary, angry, or shaky. Sometimes, stress can cause our heartbeat to beat faster. When we are undergoing stress, the following events can occur:

 The heart rate rises: this is to move blood with glucose and oxygen faster to our muscles so that we will have more energy to fight or run from the tiger.

 The digestive and reproductive organs do not receive the energy they normally need because our body assumes that when we are fighting a tiger we are not lying under a bush digesting our meal.

 Our liver releases stored carbohydrates into our bloodstream as glucose and our body also starts to make more glucose from our own body proteins because it thinks that we will need extra sugar for energy for fighting. So when we are under stress our blood sugar levels rise.

 Cortisol is a natural anti-inflammatory hormone; therefore, stress causes cortisol levels to rise because the body thinks that the body is wounded and needs treatment.

 The cholesterol levels may also rise because it is a starter material for making cortisol and all the other adrenal hormones.

The Effects of Prolonged Stress

The body’s response to stress is designed to be of short duration. Let’s continue with the “cave person” analogy – imagine a cave person encountering a tiger -. Once the tiger has been killed, the cave person has successfully escaped, or if the situation, which caused the stress level to rise, is resolved, their cortisol levels diminish and the cave person can get on with their regular day-to-day activities.

The problem with our modern “tigers” – or stressors – is that they aren’t going away. This changes the picture from one alternating between times of stress and times of relaxation to one where there is ongoing stress. This results in elevated cortisol levels that are ongoing. If our cortisol levels are too high over a long period of time, our adrenal glands will become exhausted by the need to produce high levels of cortisol all the time.

Eventually, they become depleted and then it will be difficult for them to produce high levels of cortisol even when they receive messages from the brain telling them to do so.

Stress and Hormones

The hormones in our body are always striving for balance. They operate about each other. There is a direct connection between adrenal stress and the thyroid. If the body is in a constant breakdown state and is not rebuilding itself, then the thyroid might slow down in order to stop the breakdown of body tissue. Remember, the thyroid is in control of the rate of metabolism in the body. If the thyroid slows up for this reason then it might show up in blood tests as low thyroid. The relationship between stress and the digestive problem may not be a direct one. You don’t necessarily have an argument with your boss and immediately develop a stomach ache. What we can say is that if someone is leading a propensity to develop digestive problems, stress can make the problem worse. If the person then learns to relax and practices relaxation regularly, it can diminish the severity of the symptoms. Stress manifests itself mostly in the GI tract. Stress does mess with the stomach a little bit, but, most of the responses occur in the intestines.

Food stays in the stomach for about 30 minutes but takes from 48 – to – 72 hours to pass through the whole digestive tract. Stress hormones slow digestion down, leaving food to fragment or stagnate and that can result in diarrhea or constipation. Stress can also upset the balance of the gut flora which keeps the intestines healthy.

Stress Management Strategies

~The digestion is impaired if we are under stress because its energy is diverted to the organs and the systems, which are involved in fighting our stressors. When working on managing stress levels, we should take as much work off of the digestive system as possible.

~Smokers must consider giving up smoking – which drastically depletes the body of nutrients and since it is toxic, it is another ‘tiger’ in our physical bodies.

~People who do not exercise regularly should begin a regular exercise program.

~Poor blood sugar control is the second greatest stressor to the body after mental and emotional stress. The person should pay attention to managing blood sugar.

~Ongoing stress rapidly uses vitamin C. Foods that are high in this vitamin should be used.

~These include citrus fruits, peppers, broccoli, strawberries, and tomatoes.

~Vitamin B5 directly feeds the adrenal glands. Foods that are high in B vitamins should be used to relieve these conditions. A whole food diet will contain all the B vitamins.

~Maintaining good potassium–to–sodium ratio is very beneficial. Vegetables, especially leafy greens have higher potassium – – to – sodium ratio.

~Zinc and magnesium are minerals that are vulnerable to depletion during times of stress. Foods that are high in these minerals should be used. Wholegrain, nuts, seeds, leafy green vegetables, shellfish, and turkey’s dark meat are all examples of these kinds of foods.

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