Stress can be mental or physical, although in the context of this article the focus will be on mental stress. Mental stress involves challenge, threat or worries about future adverse events. Functional gastrointestinal disorders affect 35% to 70% of people at some point in life, women more often than men. These disorders have no apparent physical cause – such as infection – yet result in pain, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, heartburn, indigestion, etc., of unknown origin. Multiple factors – biological, psychological, and social – contribute to the development of a functional gastrointestinal disorder. However, numerous studies have suggested that stress may be particularly responsible. While there are medicines that help reduce stress, one should take caution that medicines always come with side effects. This article we take a look at how to reduce stress naturally.
When the brain feels stressed, it releases a cascade of hormones that can upset the whole digestive system. These hormones have different and sometimes contradictory jobs. For example, the brain releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH in short) to signal the adrenal gland to start pumping out steroids and adrenaline that can provide the strength and energy to run or fight one’s way out of trouble (the fright-fight/flight reaction).
CRH also turns off appetite, which explains why some people can’t eat anything when they’re stressed. On the other hand, the steroids triggered by CRH can make a person hungry, which is why some people fight stress with overeating. Different people might respond differently to stress but one thing they do have in common is that, over time, stress can cause havoc in their digestive homeostasis.
Indigestion, acidity, stomach aches, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, heartburn, ulceration are some of the digestive problems which are either caused by stress or aggravated by it.
For instance, while peptic ulcer was once thought of as being purely caused by stress, later research has revealed that Helicobacter pylori cause 80% of ulcers. However 4 out of 5 people colonized with H pylori do not develop ulcers, and experts concluded that in ulcers not only H pylori but mental factors do play a significant role. One likelihood is that stress diverts energy away from the immune system, thereby promoting H pylori infection in the body.
You don’t need a Ph.D. in physiology to know that stress can be hard on the stomach. However, the impact of stress on the stomach goes far beyond indigestion. The entire system is extremely sensitive to our moods. The “gut-wrenching” experience, “feeling nauseous” or “butterflies in the stomach” tells us that the gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to emotions such as, anger, anxiety, sadness, elation. The very thought of eating can release stomach juices before the food gets there. Given how closely the gut and the brain interact, it becomes easier to understand why one might feel nauseated before giving a presentation or feel intestinal pain during times of stress.
Psychology combines with physical factors to cause these bowel symptoms. Psychosocial factors influence the actual physiology of the gut, as well as the symptoms. Hence, understanding and treating anxiety can often improve the conditions.
A Second Brain
We all talk about “gut feelings,” but few of us actually perceive the strong connection between the brain and the gut. The whole digestive tract in adults, from the mouth to the anus, is about nine meters (30 feet) long. The stomach and intestines have a collection of nerve cells and fibers leading some experts to call the digestive system a “mini brain.” A highway of nerves runs between the real brain to the digestive system, and messages flow in both directions.
Life-sustaining functions, such as breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure, and body temperature, are regulated through the autonomic nervous system which has two major divisions: the sympathetic nervous system triggers the “fright, fight or flight” response while the parasympathetic nervous system calms the body down after the danger has passed. Both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems interact with one another. A less well-known component of the autonomic nervous system – the enteric nervous system; helps regulate digestion.
The enteric nervous system is sometimes referred to as a “second brain” because it relies on the same types of neurons and chemicals (neurotransmitters) that are found in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). After sensing that food has entered the gut, neurons lining the digestive tract signal muscle cells to initiate a series of intestinal contractions that propel the food farther along, breaking it down into nutrients and waste. At the same time, the enteric nervous system uses neurotransmitters such as serotonin to communicate and interact with the central nervous system. This is called the “brain-gut axis”.
When a person becomes stressed enough to trigger the fight-or-flight response, for example, digestion slows or even stops so that the body can divert all its internal energy to face a perceived threat. In response to lessen severe stress, such as public speaking, the digestive process may slow or be temporarily disrupted, causing abdominal pain, nausea, and other symptoms. Stress shuts down the blood flow to the digestive tract, affects the contractions of the digestive muscles, and decreases secretions needed for digestion while increasing acid secretion in the stomach, thereby causing inflammation of the gastrointestinal system, and making one more susceptible to infection and ulceration or aggravating already existing conditions. Emotional distress is very common in irritable bowel syndrome or IBS patients.
How to Reduce Stress and Improve Gut Health
Hippocrates once said that “All diseases begin in the gut,” and it’s also well known that stress is a trigger that causes multiple chronic disease processes to occur. As stress is detrimental to the gut health, so also chronic stress and other negative emotions like anger, anxiety, and sadness together with a damaged gut can contribute to an array of inflammatory diseases and conditions in the body.
Therefore, the first thing one should handle is the stress factor. Stress-reduction tools with a high success rate include prayer, meditation, yoga, light exercise, socializing, or talking to friends, learning relaxation skills, such as deep breathing and positive thinking.
Benefits of Yoga in Digestive Health
Much of our appetite, health, and weight is wedded to our levels of satisfaction, anxiety, and depression, which yoga immediately addresses.
Yoga has demonstrable effects in alleviating and preventing digestive distress. It is most helpful in reducing stress, anxiety, and the pain of chronic illness. Regular practice indisputably improves physical and mental fitness, promotes relaxation, and brings about a sense of control over one’s health and well-being. Yoga is said to provide relief from symptoms such as constipation, diarrhea, bloating, gas, and pain.
Yoga stabilizes digestion by working with the nerves associated with hunger, satiation, and metabolic processes. It stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system or the “rest and digest” system, while soothing and regulating the sympathetic or the “fright-fight or flight” system.
Yoga postures when practiced compress and release different areas of the body thereby modulating the blood flow to those parts. Freshly oxygenated blood, rich in nutrients flows around the body supplying nutrition to and drawing out built-up toxins and impurities from the body’s tissues and help in eliminating them with appropriate gut movements. Compression of the digestive glands also helps in secretion of the digestive enzymes and proper metabolism.
Pranayama practices are very effective in coping with stomach ailments. A practice of breathing regularly and mindfully helps to take our mind off the stress factors. Certain pranayama system that may consist of forceful breathing helps in healing certain stomach ailments.
Meditation along with asanas and pranayamas practiced regularly has a long-term positive effect on overall health. Meditation immensely helps in controlling one’s thoughts and moods. This interprets that through regular meditation, anxiety and mood disorders leading to stress can definitely be harnessed, thereby promoting good gut health.
Diet is a part of a yogic lifestyle, and the science of Ayurveda is the medicinal/dietic branch of yogic practice. People suffering from stomach ailments are advised to avoid: rich spicy diet, overeating, junk or fast food, odd or irregular eating hours, excess intake of tea, coffee, alcohol, and smoking. Instead, they should practice eating fresh fruits, vegetables, and home cooked food.
However, to obtain the maximum benefits from yoga for improving gut health one should consult their yoga instructors first. A change in lifestyle, diet and the practice of yoga is sure to improve the digestive health of anyone suffering from stress-related stomach ailments.
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