Why Stress is Hard to Digest

By Helen Griffiths

You’ve probably at some point used your ‘gut feeling’ to make a decision, experienced ‘butterflies in the stomach’ or found information ‘hard to digest’. 

If so, you’re already familiar, at least subconsciously, with the fact that our digestion is hard-wired to our brain and emotions, and that stress can have a major impact on what’s going on in our guts. It’s our second brain and it gets stressed, too. Our enteric nervous system, which regulates the functioning of our digestive system, is also known as our ‘second brain’ due to its relative autonomy from the actual brain. It contains around 100 million neurons (so has more processing power than either the spinal cord or the peripheral nervous system) and produces many of the same neurotransmitters that are made in the brain, including serotonin, GABA, norepinephrine, dopamine, acetylcholine and melatonin. There is direct two-way communication between the brain and the digestive system, known as the ‘brain-gut axis’. This means that problems in the gut can cause a host of neurological symptoms and conversely, that emotions and stress can result in a vast array of gastro-intestinal issues. 

When faced with severe stress, our sympathetic nervous system triggers a fight-or-flight response, leading to an increase in heart rate and respiration, increased alertness and inhibition of certain functions not essential for survival. These include the digestive, reproductive and immune systems.

Stress also affects our intestinal microbiota, an important part of the brain-gut axis. There are over 100 trillion microbes living inside our GI tract, made up of a least 1,000 distinct bacterial species. They play a key role in the regulation of our digestion and metabolism, the synthesis of B-vitamins, fats and fat-soluble vitamins and are also responsible for building and maintaining the gut wall, protecting the intestine, the blood and the lymph from pathogens. In fact, there are more immune cells in the intestines than in the rest of our body, and it’s estimated that around 70% of the body’s immune response takes place in the digestive system.

When under stress, the number of species of bacteria is reduced, changing the profile of the microbiota, allowing the overgrowth of harmful bacteria and creating an imbalance. Compromised microbiota has been linked to many chronic conditions ranging from autoimmune diseases such as Hashimoto’s, Type 1 Diabetes and Crohn’s to depression, allergies and asthma.

If you think stress may be affecting your digestive health, here are 5 suggestions to help bring your gut back into balance: 

  1. Probiotics: Eat traditionally fermented foods such as kefir, kombucha, natto and cultured vegetables. You can buy these in health stores or even make your own. Alternatively, take probiotic supplements. Buy the best quality you can find – look for brands that contain multiple strains, with a high number of active live cells.
  2. Cut the sugar: It fuels pathogenic bacteria, causes inflammation in the system and causes blood sugar spikes that will affect your mood. 
  3. Stress-free eating: Don’t eat at your desk, while you’re reading stressful emails or on the go between meetings. Take some time out to eat your food in a relaxed way. 
  4. Ditch the pills: If you’re taking over the counter medications for various stress-related issues, be mindful of the damage this will have on your GI tract and the nutrient depletion they may cause. Instead, consider some natural alternatives - your kinesiologist or naturopath can help you with this.
  5. Manage your stress: Whether it’s through exercise, meditation, EFT or having regular kinesiology sessions, it’s essential to find something that will help you reduce and deal with your stress.