The body's natural flight or fight response to stress is designed to protect vital functions from attack until the threat is gone. It does this by pumping hormones into the blood stream, mainly cortisol. The boost in cortisol helps to heighten your alertness and shift energy to essential bodily functions, temporarily. One of the functions that has energy removed from it during stressful periods is the digestive system. The body slows down the energy required to process and digest food in the digestive tract until the stress period is over.
You may have experienced unpleasant reactions, like stomach aches and diarrhea, in your gut in response to immediate stresses. If you remain in a heightened stressful state over a long period, the elevated cortisol levels and stress-response systems can cause significant damage to your body. Stress can also make existing digestive problems worse, leading to more abdominal pain, nausea and heartburn. According to the National Institutes of Health, one in five Americans has a common and very uncomfortable digestive malady, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which produces pain, bloating and sometimes diarrhea and constipation.
Many of these digestive problems appear to react or to become more pronounced in response to stress events. The continuing discomfort can affect your mood and it can affect your health. In addition to IBS, you may experience indigestion as another disorder affected by stress. Feeling bloated and wanting to throw up for no apparent reason may be a symptom of a stress response. When the stress is gone, these symptoms disappear. You may also experience heartburn as the stomach may cause the stomach to produce more acid. If your diet contributes to heartburn issues, stress can only make it worse.
When your digestive processes are disrupted, you may create an unbalanced bacterial population, starting in your stomach. This can lead to a growth of the bacteria that lead to ulcers and may worsen ailments where inflammation or infections are present, such as Crohn's disease. Sustained stress can result in a variety of undesirable physical and functional disorders. While all of this is occurring, your body's immune system is compromised for two reasons. The heightened cortisol levels helps to suppress your immune system as part of the stress response. A poorly functioning digestive system will not be able to extract nutrients from your food, which further degrades your body's ability to remain strong and cope with the stress.
It is not possible to avoid all stress-producing events. Life goes on around us and we feel as if we are on a roller coaster with emotional ups and downs with each new turn. However, we can take some important steps to keep our bodies working optimally by reducing the stress levels and improving our ability to recover from these events. The first thing to think about is a walking timeout. Whenever possible, at the first sign of stress, try to take a walk of no less than ten minutes. Exercise helps to re-balance your hormones and keep you on an even keel. Walking near trees and grass will further stimulate positive reactions in your brain, which will help you to relax.
Next, make sure your diet is packed with a diverse range of nutrient rich vegetables, fruits and proteins. Remove processed sugars and starches from your diet as much as possible. The excess sugar helps to promote inflammation and digestive issues. Finally, add a good multi-species probiotic to your diet, including plain sugar free yogurt or kefir to help boost the population of beneficial bacteria in your digestive system. Exercise and nutrition will go a long way to helping you manage stress, and keep your system working through the next events that are bound to come.