Why Does Stress Make My Symptoms Worse?
One of the things I hear over and over again from people with digestive problems is that they have noticed that stress makes their symptoms so much worse. And their chronic condition is often a main source of their stress. Why exactly does stress increase your symptoms when you have digestive ailments?
Our brain and gut are more in sync than you may realize. For instance, the very thought of food can cause the stomach to produce digestive acid or the thought of giving a big presentation may cause constipation or uncontrollable bowels. The brain and gut are in constant communication. This direct relationship causes our gastrointestinal system to be sensitive to emotions and reactions such as stress.
Let’s examine our nervous system to little bit more to understand how digestion is negatively impacted by stress. We’ll be focusing on the autonomic nervous system that regulates bodily functions. This system includes the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
When we are presented with a potentially threatening situation, the sympathetic nervous system responds by triggering a “fight-or-flight response,” releasing the stress hormone cortisol to make the body alert and prepared to face the threat. When stress activates the fight-or-flight response in your central nervous system it can affect our digestive system by:
Making you feel nauseous
Giving you diarrhea or constipation
In more serious cases, chronic stress may cause a decrease in blood flow and oxygen to the stomach, which could lead to cramping, inflammation, or an imbalance of gut bacteria. It can also exacerbate gastrointestinal disorders, including:
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
On the flip side, our digestive system is controlled by our parasympathetic nervous system which I like to call the “rest and digest” system. It’s responsible for calming us down and basically undoes the work of the sympathetic nervous system after a stressful event. The parasympathetic system decreases our heart rate, our breathing, and increases our digestion.
So what can we do to reduce stress naturally? There are many ways to reduce stress and they involve being very intentional about your habits, thoughts, emotions, actions, etc. I am currently going through a training program on how to retrain your brain to overcome chronic conditions and am really excited about what I’ll learn. For now, here are a few areas to address that can help reduce stress.
Sleep: this one is so important! A lack of restorative sleep creates huge problems in your body. Your body perceives sleep deprivation as a major stressor. Making a conscious effort to get to bed on time, relax, and do some deep breathing as your prepare to sleep, and practicing good sleep hygiene (like removing digital devices from the bedroom, reducing light and noise, etc.) can help improve your sleep.
Meditation and deep breathing: This is one I recommend to just about everyone I know! Practicing diaphragmatic breathing is one way to activate your parasympathetic nervous system quickly. You will see an immediate decrease in heart rate, blood pressure, and increase in relaxation. Taking time to meditate each day is very healing for your mind and body. If you have never meditated, there are some great apps available to guide you.
Exercise: yoga and walking can help burn off excess cortisol and are beneficial for your entire body.
Self-care: take time for yourself! Schedule time for a massage or spa day. Take a relaxing bath. Spend time outdoors. Read. Work on hobbies!
Diet: pay attention to what you eat and how you eat. Do you wolf your meals down or eat on the go? Practice sitting down at the table for each meal. Chew slowly. Take deep breaths. Also, examine your diet. Are you eating a lot of sugar and carbs? Is fast food a staple in your diet? Those will all cause a rise in blood sugar and subsequent drop that is stressful to the body. Eat real, whole foods. Especially foods you enjoy and that nourish your body!
Examine your thinking: Negative thought patterns lead to anxiety and stress. Learning to reframe your responses to stressful events can make a world of difference. Replace negative thoughts with positive. Catch your inner critic! If you find that you are constantly berating yourself, change that inner dialogue.
I know it can be really hard to reduce stress in your life! I’ve been there. But it’s so worth it in the long run. Learning to build healthy habits can go a long way towards reducing the way your body (and mind) respond to stressful events and will help improve your digestive symptoms. If you’d like more information on how to begin this healing process I’d be happy to chat with you! Click here to contact me or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org