Stress & Health Part 2: Digestion

A well functioning digestive system is essential for optimal health and wellbeing. Most of us have some basic awareness of how we feel digestively, and who hasn’t felt bloated, a bit gassy or suffered from heartburn from time-to-time? For some, digestion isn’t on their radar much, yet for others it blights day-to-day life.

I work primarily with the digestive system as a clinician. This is because lots of my clients suffer from IBS type symptoms. And in addition, those with fatigue, autoimmune conditions or hormone imbalances often have digestive issues of one kind or another. Get the digestive system working well and many other health concerns can be tackled.

The impact of stress on digestive health is far reaching, and when chronic, stress may lead to a range of symptoms including reflux, heartburn, bloating, constipation, diarrhoea and pain.

So what happens to our digestion when we are under stress?

A physiological consequence of stress – and the stress response – on the digestive system is a general trend towards slowing it down. You can read a little more about the stress response in Stress & Health Part 1: Anxiety.

A reminder of things that trigger the stress response:

  • A busy lifestyle, job or relationship that makes you feel overwhelmed or anxious
  • Poor nutrition
  • Lack of sleep
  • Pain, illness or infection
  • Toxic exposure
  • Overtraining

The Stomach

The stomach has a number of important jobs to perform, one being to protect us against unwanted bacteria that we might come into contact with. This defence is carried out by a strong solution called hydrochloric acid (or stomach acid), which is produced by cells lining the stomach. Killing bacteria isn’t the only job stomach acid does. It also starts the process of breaking down the proteins we eat, and activates protein-digesting enzymes too.

Stress partially shuts down the production of this important acid, which is fine every now and again, but not great if the stress continues day after day.

With long-term or chronic stress comes an overall reduction in the production of stomach acid. The knock-on effect of this might be that you become more susceptible to bacterial infection in the stomach, small intestine and beyond – possibly opening the door to heartburn, reflux or IBS type symptoms. In addition, incomplete protein breakdown in the stomach becomes an issue for the small intestine, which must try and take up the slack. When protein isn’t broken down well by the stomach its impact can become really problematic for the health of the small intestine.

The Small Intestine

It may be referred to as ‘small’, but to me this part of the digestive system is mighty! The work carried out by the small intestine is immense, and it’s thanks to its incredible work ethic that we are able to digest and absorb the majority of the goodness we take in through our food. However, as with the stomach, stress inhibits the workings of the small intestine. It appears to slow down its movement (a very gentle ripple-like action needs to take place to continually move food along and – crucially – allow it to clear-up afterwards). The production of enzymes needed to help us digest proteins, fats and carbohydrates also decreases in times of stress.

This slowing down of movement and reduction in enzymes – not to mention the burden placed from low stomach acid further up the chain – sets the scene for issues with bacterial overgrowth of the small intestine (often referred to as SIBO). The symptoms associated with SIBO are many, but the most common ones include:

  • Abdominal pain or discomfort
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhoea
  • Constipation
  • Gas
  • Belching
  • Acid reflux
  • Low iron and other vitamin/mineral deficiencies
  • Fatigue

This situation of small intestine bacterial overgrowth is now a recognised underlying cause for IBS, along with plenty of other digestive complaints.  It can often be managed with specific dietary intervention and lifestyle changes – including stress management. However, sometimes more targeted help is required from either herbal or medical antibiotics, and possibly natural agents to help with the natural movement of the small intestine.

Supporting digestion in times of stress

  1. Take time to eat and chew your food really well. This gives your struggling digestive system a most welcome helping hand.
  2. Reduce foods and drinks that have a negative impact on bacterial balance in your digestive tract. These include sugar and alcohol.
  3. Allow time between meals for your small intestine to do the clearing up that’s so vital to its health. About 4-5 hours is ideal.

If you suffer from digestive symptoms including those mentioned above I would be delighted to work with you, so please get in touch. We can put a strategy in place to improve overall digestive wellbeing and, if needed, work with functional tests to assess digestive function and test for bacterial infection or overgrowth.

It’s also important to note that there are some digestive symptoms that should be brought to the attention of your doctor, as they can be a warning sign for more serious problems. These are:

  • A sudden change in bowel habits
  • Blood or mucus in stools, or black, tarry stools
  • Increasing heartburn, indigestion or stomach pains
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Difficulty or pain in swallowing

Also in this series read Stress & Health Part 1: Anxiety and Stress & Health Part 3: Immunity.

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