If you’ve ever had a bad day that sent your stomach into turmoil, or felt sick with fear, you’ve definitely experienced the stress-digestion link.
Those experiences aren’t just normal. They can be educational, too. Knowing how stress can affect your bodily processes should help you minimize digestive issues through addressing the major stressors in your environment.
There is one major connection between the gut and stress that sets the stage for all the rest, and that’s the fact that digestion is controlled by the enteric nervous system.
1. Fight or flight spasms
When your central nervous system fight or flight response is activated (by stress, of course), your muscle contractions change. This change presents in the form of colon contractions that cause you to run to the bathroom suddenly, or esophageal spasms that may make you feel like vomiting.
Of course, your neck and head experience these tension effects too, in the form of pain. What’s going on?
When we’re stressed, a surge of adrenaline causes us to be prepped to respond to danger – which means our muscles tense to avoid injury. Unfortunately, it also means our internal muscles tense, which causes the digestive discomfort.
2. So thirsty
During periods of high stress, the body has to use its resources intelligently if it is to have a chance of survival. It diverts fluids to locations other than the mouth and digestive system. This diversion can both make it difficult to swallow and minimize the amount of secretions available for digesting food already in the stomach.
Those fluids can also include blood. In short, as your body increases blood flow to your muscles, the organs that need to use that blood to digest (like the stomach) will experience a deficit, causing discomfort.
Do you ever feel sick if you take a hot shower after eating? That feeling is a result of increased circulation near the skin – which diverts blood away from the digestive system.
Another fluidity issue: stress can increase acid secretion, leading to a differing or unstable pH in the gut.
3. Bacteria get stressed, too
The gut is home to millions of living bacteria that both react to and influence our bodies in intriguing and surprising ways.
In recent years, most medical experts have accepted the existence of something called the brain-gut-axis, or BGA. Bacteria communicate with the BGA through a few different mechanisms, including mucosal cell interaction, immune cell messaging and neuronal messaging.
Bidirectional communication/ interaction between the BGA and the microbiota can modulate the gut’s response to both acute and chronic stress. All the crosstalk indicates that stress could potentially lead to a shift in the actual makeup of the bacteria, causing short or long term digestive issues.
Were you surprised to learn how much our guts can be affected by stress? Have you ever experienced digestive issues as a result of stress? Share your story on our Facebook page!