Stress, whether it's acute or chronic, can have a significant impact on the functionality of our gut. This is due to the strong bidirectional relationship between the gut and brain. The gut and the brain are connected by the vagus nerve, which allows them to be in constant communication.
When our body encounters a stressful event, it forces our body to enter its “fight or flight” mode. Our brain will send a chemical messenger to the gut to let it know that it has entered a state of stress. What this signal is telling the gut is to halt all normal production in order to preserve energy to focus on the stressful event that is taking place.
Stress also triggers a release of cortisol which in return, communicates to the body to stay alert, therefore inhibiting it from entering its “rest and digest” phase. The “rest and digest” phase is the state that we want our body to be in when we are eating because it allows our gut to function optimally without interruption. When our body is in fight or flight mode, it has the ability to decrease digestive capacity, reduce the absorption of nutrients, either speed up or slow down transit time (i.e. bowels) and cause inflammation.
Stress can impact our gut in the following ways:
Higher levels of cortisol in the body can interfere with the production of digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid (HCL) which are essential for eating, breaking down, and digesting food. A lack of digestive enzymes can cause a plethora of symptoms such as poor nutrient absorption, bloating, and a lack of appetite.
When our body is in its “fight or flight” mode, it instantly deters circulation and oxygen away from the main organs in order to preserve the body for the “flight”. This can interfere with the breakdown and absorption of food.
Stress can play tricks on our bowels in many ways. Our digestion can either slow down (i.e. constipation) or speed up (i.e. diarrhea). Diarrhea can cause nutrient loss and dehydration, whereas constipation can slow down detoxification and cause a re-absorption of toxins, waste, and hormones.
To increase your capacity to deal with stressful events, reduce your overall daily stress levels, and support digestion, try these tips:
Avoid drinking water 30 minutes before and after a meal
Put away your electronics and distractions while eating
Avoid eating on the go
Eat away from your work desk
Get daily exercise
Be present. Eat mindfully and support your body as best as you can to enter its “rest and digest” phase.