Q: I’ve noticed that since Covid, my digestive system has not been performing as well. Is there a relationship between stress and how my intestines work?
A: Studies around the gut-brain connection are increasing, and proving something that we’ve always noticed; that our digestive system talks to our brain, and our brain talks to our stomach, intestines, and other organs. Reflect on the last time you felt butterflies when you are nervous or anxious about an outcome or nauseous over an event, or even had a gut-wrenching experience. All forms of emotions can be located in our body if we pay attention and research is showing that some of the more severe or persistent feelings and thoughts can be reflected in some of our digestive system illnesses. According to Harvard Health Science, emotional and mental stress can be a major contributor to some of the common gastrointestinal illnesses like irritable bowel syndrome, gastro reflux, upset stomach, constipation, and, diarrhea. Unfortunately, these illnesses and the pain and worry associated with them can lead to increased anxiety and depression for many people, and it becomes a negative cycle.
Chronic stress affects your Gut Health & Metabolism
When stress is chronic and not managed, our sympathetic nervous system triggers the release of many hormones including cortisol to help us physically resolve a perceived threat with the options of fight and flight. Cortisol signals some organs and systems to ramp up, and others to turn off. For example, saliva and stomach acid secretions are stopped as digestion is a waste of energy when trying to outrun a mountain lion. The peristaltic contractions that move food through our intestines are also stopped to save energy for fleeing. Heart rate increases and the release of blood sugar becomes more available to power our muscles. Our sympathetic nervous system ramps us up for a survival scenario, and after the event, it’s our parasympathetic nervous system that brings us back into a “rest and digest” equilibrium for balanced health. But, what if there isn’t a cougar to outrun, but instead it’s our thoughts and feelings about situations in our life that keep us in a chronically elevated state of stress? Fast forward to the effect of having a vigilant nervous system triggering too much cortisol on an ongoing basis and the effect on our digestive system can turn into an illness. Add the fact that our parasympathetic nervous system operating from the vagus nerve’s connection to all of our internal organs connects the brain to our guts and is responsible for digestive enzyme release, intestinal contractions, immune reactions to allergens, and hormonal movement back and forth between our head brain and our gut-brain, and we can see how medical and psychological researchers are looking for ways to minimize stress’ effects on the body and brain. On a simplistic level, this communication is responsible for letting us know when our stomach is full before we stretch it with overeating, and on a complex level, it works in concert with our gut microbiome to ensure complete digestion and absorption of nutrients.
7 techniques to reduce stress and manage IBS symptoms
From research reported through the Mayo Clinic, Harvard Medical, and Psychiatry Magazine among others, it is becoming more mainstream to consider the inclusion of psycho-social tools and practices to help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression while improving gut biome, immune function, and stabilizing many digestive disorders. Here are some examples being touted as beneficial to repair the gut-brain issues that have become even more prevalent during the stress of the Covid pandemic.
1. Mindfulness training
Mindfulness is the act of paying attention to the present moment. During mindfulness practice, you are encouraged to notice and accept your thoughts and feelings without trying to change them. Over time, mindfulness helps you reduce stress by improving your ability to accept change and let go of worries. Research indicates that mindfulness can prevent and ease IBS symptoms.7,8
2. Relational Somatic Therapy
Connecting body sensations with feelings and implicit memories to heal developmental, attachment, and trauma from childhood in order to learn how to self and co-regulate the sympathetic nervous system in order to increase one’s tolerance to previously stressful triggers.
3. Cognitive behavioral therapy
Sessions with a trained counselor can help you learn to modify or change your responses to stress. Several studies suggest that cognitive-behavioral therapy provides a significant and long-lasting reduction of IBS symptoms.1,6-8
During sessions with a trained professional, you enter a relaxed state and are then guided through visualizations and suggestions designed to help you control your symptoms and calm your digestive tract. Several studies support the long-term effectiveness of hypnosis for IBS.1,6-8
During these sessions, electrical sensors help you receive information (feedback) on your body’s functions – heart rate, for example. The feedback helps you focus on making changes to manage stress and ease symptoms.7,8
6. Progressive relaxation training
These exercises help you learn how to relax your muscles. For example, you might start by tightening the muscles in your feet, then slowly releasing that tension. Next, tighten and relax your calves. Continue up the body until all your muscles – including those in your face and head – are relaxed. This progressive tightening and relaxing of your muscles are typically coupled with breathing techniques – breathe in while tightening the muscle group, breathe out when relaxing the muscles.1,6,7
In a review of several studies, individuals with IBS who practice yoga experience fewer bowel symptoms, decreased IBS severity, and lower rates of anxiety compared with conventional treatment.9
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