Stress and digestion – the two may seem virtually unrelated, but they are actually quite intricately connected. Stress is known to cause a host of digestive issues including constipation, diarrhea, bloating, nausea, and heartburn. In return, digestive symptoms can often trigger stress, creating an endless cycle of discomfort and frustration.
April is Stress Awareness Month which provides the perfect opportunity to evaluate ways that stress may be affecting your digestion. It is estimated that as many as 80 percent of individuals dealing with irritable bowel syndrome or other gastrointestinal problems never even discuss their symptoms with their doctors. The means they are missing out on valuable information and treatments that could put a stop to their discomfort.
To understand how stress contributes to digestive issues, you must first understand the brain-gut connection. This lies in the enteric nervous system, a subdivision of the autonomic nervous system that directly controls the digestive system. Often referred to as a second brain, the enteric nervous system contains more than 100 million nerve cells lining the gastrointestinal tract. When we experience stress, the nervous system activates its instinctual “fight or flight” response. This decreases blood flow to the digestive system, inhibits contractions of digestive muscles and decreases digestive secretions, essentially shutting down the digestive process (Source: Everyday Health).
If you’re dealing with stress-induced digestive symptoms, you don’t have to suffer in silence. Begin by examining stressors in your life and finding ways to limit them. You may also benefit from therapies that can help you learn to relax and better cope with stress. These include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Progressive relaxation
- Deep breathing exercises
Talk to your doctor if you are not able to bring your stress to a manageable level or if your digestive issues continue. Together you can devise a treatment plan that addresses the root cause of your symptoms and provides complete relief.