Let’s jump right in — statistics show the top three sources of stress are: money, work, and family.1 Which means, it’s impossible to completely steer clear of stress — even if you wanted to.
But that doesn’t mean you can reduce your exposure to stressful situations — at least some of the time…
And when it comes to your health, reducing exposure to stressors is essential.
But what is a stressor, exactly?
Well, simply put, it’s a source of stress, and it can be something environmental or circumstantial — like a looming work deadline — or psychological — like the worry of losing your job. No matter what type of stressor, these can trigger a release of stress hormones that create a well-oiled chain of physiological changes.
Stress can make your heart pound and or cause your breath to quicken.
Perhaps stress makes your muscles tense up or causes you to sweat profusely. And, though this may seem contradictory, stress is natural and was initially quite useful for humans back in the day.
For instance, imagine sensing a lion looking for a delicious human lunch. Were you lion prey, the stress impulse would kick in and cause your body to take action so it could handle any dangerous situation in a time of need — whether you needed to run quickly, hide, or fight back.
But, our world has evolved. So, in some cases, our stress signals are triggered when our bodies don’t actually have a need to respond with all the energy summoned.
After all, while work can be stressful — it’s not “chased by a lion” stressful.
The Physical Stress Response
So what happens to your body when you “stress out?”
Well, the physical stress response is a complex series of useful hormonal and biophysical changes. But if things get out of hand, your body can overreact. And though traffic jams or issues at home can be frustrating, they’re rarely life-threatening. But your body can’t always tell the difference. Of course, this gap is one of the potential causes of chronic stress.2
Furthermore, the stress response impacts almost every system in your body. As a result, chronic stress can have a negative impact on many aspects of your health, if not treated correctly. These can include:
- Anxiety disorders
- Sleep issues
- Weight gain
- Mood issues
- Heart trouble
- Sleep problems
- Concentration impairment
- Digestive problems3
Which is why it’s so important to speak to a doctor if you’re experiencing chronic stress — correct care can really make a huge impact in keeping you healthy, especially in stressful situations.
The Gut And Brain
Now, troubles like mood and sleep issues probably make sense when it comes to stress… but can stress actually contribute to digestive issues? Well, many health practitioners refer to your digestive tract as a second brain. While your gut isn’t actually a brain, it’s closely related to and deeply affected by your brain, and vice versa.
For example, when you simply think about food, your digestive system starts working. This includes releasing enzymes to break down food in the stomach.
This close connection means that stress can cause acute changes in the digestive tract.
And stress can cause an increase in the production of stomach acid. When there’s more acid in the stomach, heartburn can become a real possibility if that acid climbs the esophagus. And in some cases, your body may even stop digestion altogether if it fears it’s in a fight-or-flight mode.4
Maybe you’ve heard the term “microbiome” before… This term refers to the bacteria that live in various parts of your body. Like a forest, your microbiome is an ecosystem in-and-of itself.
Of course, it can change based on environmental factors you come into contact with or even depending on the foods you eat. Changes in your body can affect bacteria too — and you know this includes changes brought on by chronic stress.5
Some theorize that issues with the digestive tract can actually affect the brain as well.6 This opens up a whole number of possibilities when it comes to handling stress.
But why does the gut-brain connection matter?
What You Can Do to Manage Stress-related Digestive Issues
Well, the first step is always seeing a medical professional — in some cases, antidepressants and cognitive behavioral therapy may be considered (they are already common treatments for stress), and surprisingly, they may help treat irritable bowel syndrome too.7
Mindfulness meditation may help as well — the practice is a variation of meditation with the primary concept of focusing on the moment. A recent study showed that people with irritable bowel syndrome who used meditation showed reduced symptoms. The study authors believed that this stemmed from the relaxation response.8
Lifestyle changes also play an important role in both stress and digestive health. Consider eating a more balanced diet and getting regular sleep if you are not doing so already.
Of course, tackling digestive discomfort from multiple angles could actually be the best option. Some studies show that a hybrid of psychological and physical treatments are the ideal combination when it comes to helping you manage stress and a stressed-out gut.9
Stress and Digestion In Review
Your mind is more connected to your body than you may have thought. As a result, balanced health practices are ideal in order to support better digestion and simultaneously manage chronic stress. If you focus on improving your gut health and become conscious of regulating your stress you could learn to improve your health in new and effective ways — from thinker to tummy.