Up to 70% of people will have a gastrointestinal problem at some point in their life. When there is no underlying physical cause, stress may be the culprit; and often is. Stress can wreak havoc on the digestive system, causing acute and chronic conditions. But how does stress affect the digestive system?
The digestive system is controlled by the enteric nervous system, which is sometimes called the “second brain”. This is because it has the same type of neurons as the brain. These neurons sense when food enters the gut and sends signals to muscle cells to contract and move food through. The enteric nervous system also communicates directly with the central nervous system using neurotransmitters such as serotonin. It has also been said that the gut is the seat of all human emotions; and emotions and digestion will each affect the other.
When you are stressed your sympathetic nervous system is activated; the fight or flight response. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated the digestive system slows down, and sometimes stops. This is because the body needs to focus it’s energy on more important areas of the body to address the current threat. Unfortunately most “threats” these days are not really dangerous and our sympathetic nervous system is activated far too often. For some people it is activated almost constantly which means their digestive system is not functioning to the best of it’s abilities most of the time. And if digestion isn’t happening as well as it should then other problems can occur such as bloating, pain, gas, indigestion, inflammation and IBS. If this becomes ongoing chronic conditions may result.
Although some stress in life is unavoidable, being aware of the affects of chronic stress is a good way to avoid gastrointestinal health problems. A few ways to manage your stress and digestion is to exercise regularly, never eat when stressed, never eat on the run, eat a healthy well balanced diet and cut down on anything which may increase your stress hormones such as high amounts of caffeine. Most importantly make sure you balance your life by getting enough sleep and leisure time, and don’t forget to laugh.