• Dr. Caroline Ricker

Rest and Digest: A story of what stress does to your waistline

In case you haven’t heard, stress is a leading factor in almost every “disease of lifestyle” that we encounter these days. Cancer, heart disease, diabetes, stroke; they can all be brought on or worsened by increased levels or chronic stress. While what we’re about to talk about could be applicable to many of these conditions, today I’d like to relate stress specifically to your digestive health.

It’s actually pretty incredible how many ways stress can affect your gut. People can experience symptoms of these effects very differently too. Some folks may get diarrhea when faced with having to give a presentation at work, others get constipated while traveling. Another may experience acid reflux and stomach pain after a stressful day at work, and yet another may have IBS. This is why digestive issues can be so difficult to sort out. Because not only are there many different causes, people experience it so differently that it can be hard to pinpoint just what the heck is going on.

So let’s talk about stress. There are two big reasons that I like to discuss stress in relation to the gut. The first is that it is so predominant in our current society. Almost everyone is experiencing stress at a much higher level than they need to, especially right now. The second is that there are so many ways that stress affects the gut that by working to alleviate it, we can drastically improve someone’s care for these issues.

Here are the top 3 ways that stress affects the digestive tract:

1. Fight or Flight: Your body is regulated all day everyday by a portion of the central nervous system that we call the autonomic nervous system. This is what regulates things that you don’t think about like breathing, heart rate, hormones, etc. It is split into two portions called the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. These mechanisms are extremely complex but to make it as simple as possible, one portion handles “fight or flight” situations such as danger and stress, and the other side handles “rest and digest” functions. In an ideal scenario, the body would “idle” in parasympathetic, as it makes more sense for you to consistently be resting and digesting for a majority of your day.

Unfortunately, your fight or flight system has override over the other, and it doesn’t understand the difference between a small stress and a large danger. For example, if you were being chased down an alley by a stranger it would be really great if all your blood was diverted to your limbs for running, and for your heart and breathing rates to speed up so that you could outrun your attacker. It’s way less awesome if it’s Monday, your boss just moved your project deadline up two weeks to this Friday; now you’re super stressed out and the exact same process that happens for the “attacker scenario” is happening on a smaller scale to you ALL WEEK. This means that instead of being able to sleep well and digest all your food, your body will be in constant low grade fight or flight, diverting blood, oxygen and other resources to your “flight” systems when what you really need is to chill and focus.

So a person who leads even a moderately stressful lifestyle, like a working mom with two kids in sports, can be heavily affected in the digestive department. With a near constant decrease in oxygen, blood flow and neurological stimulation to the digestive system, how could we expect it to function properly??

2. Decreased Nervous System Communication: wait, didn’t we just talk about this? Yes…and also no. Did you know that your digestive tract has its own nervous system called the enteric nervous system? This system is so complex that it is often called the body’s “second brain” and can function without complete direction from the central nervous system. It also communicates back and forth with the brain regularly, letting the rest of your nervous system know what is going on with your gut. Several of the body’s chemicals (called neurotransmitters) used in regulating mood (among other things), such as serotonin, are heavily produced in the gut.

This creates a cyclical system in which stress can affect how the enteric nervous system functions and decreased function of this nervous system will also heavily affect how the brain is able to handle stress. This relationship is extra important in dealing with psychological disorders such as anxiety and depression, as medications such as SSRIs can assist with the immediate issue of decreased serotonin, but don’t even remotely solve the problem as to why the levels are low. We also know from numerous studies that conditions like IBS will be aggravated by stressful scenarios. This is why paying attention to stress and the gut has so many different benefits.

3. Cascades: The human body is super complex. This is largely the reason that most medications have so many side effects; because they change something in one part of the body, but they have no control over the cascade of changes that will occur in a domino effect of the one thing that was altered. Stress, whether environmental, psychological or physical, will cause many changes in the body. Each of these changes, such as increased heart rate, hormone release, chemical regulation etc., will cause the body to have to adapt by changing other things to account for the differences. We see this in the gut in many ways, such as increased intestinal motility (gas and diarrhea), imbalanced gut flora (IBS, IBD, gas, bloating and more), decreased gastric function (poor food breakdown, nutrient malabsorption), and increased inflammation (Crohns, UC, IBD, ulcers, gastritis). It is always important to realize how something that we are doing can affect the body in so many different ways, and to remember that interventions should always be in attempt to sort out the root cause vs. just treating a symptom to avoid causing more cascading issues to occur.

Whew. Hopefully you didn’t get stressed out reading this! We know that it is a lot to try to take in, but if you get anything out of this, I’d love for it to be that your relationship with stress may be a huge reason for issues with your belly. Need help figuring out how to deal with stress? We’ve got you covered! Next week’s blog will be all about how to reduce stress naturally and effectively.

Dr. Caroline Ricker has been passionately helping people avoid unnecessary medications and surgeries since 2009. She combines a very logical functional medicine approach to digestive disorders and more using a more alternative holistic approach, utilizing standard lab tests and in-office evaluations as well as nutrition, acupuncture and homeopathy.

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