Human behavior expert Dr. John Demartini defines stress as “your inability to adapt to a changing environment”.
Stressors (factors that cause stress) can be internal and come from inside your body, or external and come from outside your body.
Internal stressors include bad foods, blood sugar imbalances, bad bugs, toxins and inflammation.
Your body can switch on its “stress response” in reaction to any of these.
It’s also stressful for your body to be deficient in nutrients or hormones. Your stress response will switch on in order to plug the gap in these nutrients and hormones.
Keeping things simple, I’ll define external stressors as the things you react to in your immediate environment.
What I’m really getting at is psychological, mental and emotional stress – the boss, the commute, the kids, the partner, the money, the parents, the bad driver, etc.
More appropriately, it’s your response to these potential stressors that causes problems, and this is something I’ll come back to later in the article series.
Keep reading, because I want to “stress” that PAST reactions to stress – even as far back as early childhood – can continue to run your physiology and cause digestive symptoms.
In modern life, we’re bombarded by lots of these stresses. It’s really simple to use the straws on a camel’s back analogy.
Ask yourself, “How many straws are on my back?”
Any exposure to, or perception of stress will lead to an activation of your body’s stress response, and your digestion suffers as a result.
When you have 2, 3, 4, 5 or more different stressors as most people do, it can become a real problem.
In the previous article, I listed ten ways in which stress can alter your digestive function.
I’d like to go back and focus on numbers 1-4 in a little detail.
Your stress response is sometimes called “fight or flight” – perhaps you’ve heard this term?
When your fight or flight response is switched on in response to some kind of stress, digesting food is the last thing your body is focused on.
It wants to divert its energy and resources to dealing with the stress its under.
In ancient times this would have involved confrontation (fight) or running away (flight). Your body would need to divert all its resources and energy into its heart, lungs, nerves and muscles, not its gut.
We know from modern research that nerve impulses and hormone signals divert blood from your gut into your brain, nervous system, heart, lungs and muscles when you’re fearful or angry.
This is why your heart beats faster, you feel more alert, breathe faster and harder and tense up when you’re scared or threatened.
A loss of blood flow and resources to your gut can really compromise its function and lead to many symptoms. Lots people we consult report that their digestive symptoms kicked in after a period of stress. Did yours?
In her paper, Gut Feelings: Bacteria and the Brain, Jane Foster writes:
“In the 1830s, William Beaumont (an army surgeon), was able to monitor gastric secretions…noted an association between changing moods and gastric secretions.” 1
Since the work of Beaumont nearly two centuries ago, science has revealed that emotions do, in fact, affect digestive secretions such as stomach acid and enzymes.
If stomach acid production declines there is an associated drop in digestive enzyme and bile levels. Since all these substances are needed for proper digestion, a decrease in output can cause digestive problems.
A 2001 article in the American Journal of Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology, Yvette Tache and colleagues write:
“THE INFLUENCE OF EMOTION ON gastric motor function was first described as anecdotal clinical observations …in cats and dogs at the beginning of the 1900s… However, it was only during the past two decades that attempts were made to unravel the mechanisms underlying the gut motor response to stressful stimuli.”2
When they say “motor response”, they mean things like stomach emptying time and the time it takes you to poop out food once you’ve eaten it.
When it comes to stomach emptying, or gastric emptying, here’s what the authors say:
“…In healthy human subjects, anger, fear, painful stimuli, preoperative anxiety, or intense exercise results in a slowing of gastric emptying.”
Slower stomach/gastric emptying can lead to heartburn/GERD, difficulty swallowing, feeling of fullness, belching, bloating, nausea and a loss of appetite.
It also encourages the overgrowth of Candida, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth and other bad bugs.
There’s a reason for the term “Shitting oneself out of fear.” Research clearly shows that stress has the opposite effect on the colon compared with the stomach. In other words, it speeds up the colon.
A sharp fright, or exposure to high levels of acute stress lead to stimulation of your colon:
“Inhibition of gastric emptying and stimulation of colonic motor function are the commonly encountered patterns induced by various stressors.” 3
With this pattern, you can expect increased motility/movement through the colon and more defecation (i.e. shitting yourself!).
However with chronic stress lasting many months or years, the pattern may differ. In fact, constipation might even result from long-term stress because the situation gets more complex.
You have a total stress load that’s the sum of all the stressors in your internal and external environment.
As your body responds to these stressors, it diverts resources to parts of your body that help you deal with the stress, including heart, lungs, brain, central nervous system and muscles, as the image shows.
The result is a faulty digestive system – reduced blood flow, reduced digestive secretions, slower stomach function and accelerated colon function, as the diagram shows.
Can you see already how this could cause digestive symptoms?
In the next article we’ll look at how stress messes up the balance of microbes in your digestive system, which can lead to all manner of problems!
Running a home stool test is the quickest way I know to recover your digestive health, whilst boosting your energy, mood, and general wellbeing.
It saves you time, money and reduces your stress level by giving you peace of mind.
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1. Foster, JA. Gut Feelings: Bacteria and the Brain. Cerebrum, July 2013.
2. Tache et al. Stress and the Gastrointestinal Tract III. Stress-related alterations of gut motor function: role of brain corticotropin-releasing factor receptors. Am J Physiol Gastrointest Liver Physiol 280: G173–G177, 2001.
3. Tache et al. Stress and the Gastrointestinal Tract III. Stress-related alterations of gut motor function: role of brain corticotropin-releasing factor receptors. Am J Physiol Gastrointest Liver Physiol 280: G173–G177, 2001.
4. Image from Konturek, et al. Stress and the Gut: Pathophysiology, Clinical Consequences, Diagnostic Approach and Treatment Options. Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology. 2011. 62: 6; 591-599.
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