Have you ever had a "gut feeling" or had to make a "gut-wrenching" decision? If you have, you have felt the affects of stress on your digestive system.
The brain and the gut are constantly communicating with each other. So much so that the gut is known to many as the "second brain." It is even governed by its own nervous system - the Enteric nervous system. The enteric nervous system lies in the gastrointestinal system and consists of over 500 million neurons - more than in the entire spinal cord. While the ENS communicates with the central nervous system through the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, it is able to act independently. So what does all this mean?
To start, the enteric nervous system regulates certain processes such as swallowing, releasing digestive enzymes that break down food and categorizing food as either waste or nutrients. It also creates dopamine and serotonin. About 90% of the body's serotonin is found in the gut, as well as 50% of the body's dopamine. Stress can have a huge impact on the processes.
When we are faced with a potentially dangerous or stressful situation, the sympathetic nervous system has a "fight or flight" response, which triggers the release or cortisol, a stress hormone. This makes the body alert to the stressor. When you experience this, you may notice yourself breathing faster and your heart rate elevated. You may have increased blood pressure and blood cholesterol as well as muscle tension.
This "fight or flight" response affects your digestive system by causing spasms in your esophagus, increasing acid in your stomach which causes indigestion, making you feel nauseous, and causing diarrhea or constipation. The more stress you feel the worse this can get and you may also experience cramping, inflammation or an imbalance in your gut bacteria.
Although stress does not cause stomach ulcers or Irritable bowel syndrome, it can definitely make these and other conditions - such as IBD and GERD - worse.
What to do?
Finding ways to manage stress is the number one thing you can do. You can start by listing everything that causes you stress and determine which ones you can completely remove from your life and how to do so. Regular exercise, seeking therapy, practicing yoga, meditation, working on time-management or changing your diet to include stress - reducing foods are some other great ways you can lighten the load. Implementing tools to help work through and eliminate some stress in your life can have huge benefits for your health.
It is believed by many that "all health begins in the gut." So start there - decrease your stress and increase your health!