Chronic stress seems to be the norm for many today. People are taking on too much, trying to achieve it all. The issue is, the effects of stress on the digestive system are unknown by many. It’s like we’re driving in a car and the yellow lights come flashing on to tell us something isn’t right but we just keep driving because we’ve still got gas in the car and we’re still running. It’s not until we’re broken down, on the side of the road, that we take a moment to acknowledge what’s going on and get help. If only we had brought the car in for repair when the yellow lights were flashing.
How Your Digestive System Works
First, It’s important to have an overall understanding of how the digestion process works (or should be working). The digestion process actually starts with chewing your food. Once your saliva mixes with the food, enzymes from plant foods are released. Once your food makes it’s way down to your stomach, it triggers the release of Hydrochloric Acid (HCl) and enzymes which are really important as they start to breakdown the food. It’s these stomach acids that sterilize pathogens that may be ingested via your food. Your food (aka the “chyme”) is then released from your stomach when the pH reaches 2.3 (which is very acidic), causing an “acid trigger”. Your gallbladder releases bile and the pancreas releases bicarbonate and enzymes.
These enzymes, bicarbonate and bile mix with the food and as the food makes it’s way through the small intestine where nutrients are absorbed across the intestinal membrane. Water, electrolytes and cholesterol are then absorbed until eventually what’s left is removed via a bowel movement.
How Stress Affects Digestion
When we look at how stress can affect the digestion process the trouble can begin with low HCl as stress can cause a decrease in the production of HCl (as you’ll see it’s sort of a domino effect from there on out). When there isn’t enough HCl, it won’t be acidic enough to cause the acid trigger so food may stay in the stomach longer and start to ferment, causing bloating and acid reflux.
When people consume caffeine or nicotine however, this can cause the food to leave the stomach prematurely which means pathogens aren’t sterilized, some digestive enzymes are not activated and the pH remains too high. Without the acid trigger, there is no trigger for the gallbladder to release bile and for the pancreas to release enzymes. Less bile, bicarbonate and pancreatic enzymes means fats are not emulsified and food is not sufficiently broken down, which means less nutrients are absorbed across the intestinal membrane.
The food can continue to ferment and putrefy and feed the “bad” bacteria, which can also potentially damage the intestinal lining and cause “leaky gut”. Leaky Gut can allow food proteins into the blood which can ultimately lead to food allergies and intolerances as well as other gastrointestinal issues.
“Fight or Flight”
Studies have shown that psychological stresses can affect intestinal sensitivity, movement, absorption and bacteria (1). When you experience short-term stress (whether it’s physical or emotional) your sympathetic nervous system kicks into a “fight or flight response” to help you cope. During this time digestion slows or stops so the body can divert it’s energy to managing the “threat” (2). When the stress passes, the parasympathetic system kicks in to stop the stress response to help the body “rest and digest” (3). But, if the stress becomes chronic it can become harmful because a state of balance cannot be reached (4).
The important thing to be mindful of here is even though you can’t directly see the effects of stress on your digestive system, doesn’t mean you’re not being impacted by it. When you are really stressed out, it’s best to avoid eating or if you’re hungry, try to stick to a lighter, more digestible, plant-based meal and avoid raw foods-choosing lightly cooked foods instead. A digestive enzyme supplement can also be helpful to take with larger meals when you are stressed to help break down your food.
If you’d like some more tips for healthy digestion as well as a tummy soothing recipe, click here for a copy of my free healthy digestion guide.