Why You’re Sick and Tired: Chronic Stress Is Wrecking Your Digestive System


Stress can be a regular part of everyday life. It can even be good for you: Exercise, for instance, is a form of good stress. However, chronic stress occurs when your feelings of being pressured or overwhelmed are constant and persistent over an extended period. You may feel aches, pains and weakness as a result; you may also have insomnia or disrupted sleep. And at the same time, your digestive system is also taking hits. So, managing stress is vital in ensuring that all your body’s systems are functioning normally. 

Let’s dig into how stress messes with your gut and what you can do about it. 

The gut is often referred to as the “second brain” because it is home to hundreds of millions of neurons and neurotransmitters that are constantly communicating with your brain. This gut-brain connection explains why strong emotions can trigger physical reactions in your gut.

When you’re stressed, your brain signals the adrenal gland to release cortisol. As a result, your heart rate, blood pressure and blood glucose will increase. In addition, your body tenses and your breathing speeds up. Once the stressful event has passed and your emotions have stabilized, your bodily functions go back to normal.

Unfortunately, cortisol also temporarily shuts down specific systems in your body to focus on overcoming the stressful event. And one of the central systems that slows down to help combat stress is your digestive system. 

Decreased blood flow and oxygen affect your gut microbiome balance, which can impair your body’s ability to store fat, regulate blood sugar and absorb nutrients. An uptick in fluid secretion also explains why stressful events may cause repeated urges to use the bathroom—even to the point of altering your bowel habits and inducing abdominal pain.

Experiencing stress-filled episodes occasionally is normal; your body will resume normal function when the stressful episode has passed or your mind has cleared. However, chronic stress means your body is always in defensive mode. And when your digestive tract is constantly slowed down by cortisol, you can develop more significant gastrointestinal issues, including peptic ulcers, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and irritable bowel disease (IBD).

Three Ways to Reduce Stress-Induced Digestive Problems  

Identify Your Triggers.

Knowing what triggers stress can help you prepare for it. You can either avoid these triggers or learn how to manage your emotions when faced with them. Of course, some events happen in life unexpectedly.

Distract Yourself.

Entertaining negative thoughts leads to stress. Rather than focusing on the things you cannot control, choose to think positive thoughts. Substitute stressful thoughts with joyful activities, such as a hobby, exercise and socializing.

Master Your Breathing.

Learning to change your breathing deliberately is a powerful weapon against stress. When you’re stressed, your brain increases your respiration rate, causing you to take shallow breaths or hyperventilate. This can prolong your feelings of anxiety. By mastering your breathing, you can overcome the sudden change in your breathing pattern. Deep breathing sends messages to the brain to calm it down. Breathing techniques and meditation also increase self-awareness, which is crucial to helping you identify stress triggers. 

By Gastro MD

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