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How Does Stress Impact Digestion?

Stress Impact Digestion

By Matt Cusano, Clinical Director

Have you ever heard of the fight-or-flight response? When you experience stress, your body is essentially being “attacked”. As your body prepares to either FIGHT the perceived stressor or FLEE from it, the sympathetic nervous system becomes activated. What is interesting here, is that your body can’t actually tell the difference between types of stressors. Are you stuck in a bad traffic jam? Are you experiencing relationship issues? Or is it something as drastic as being chased by a lion? The fight-or-flight response is our main survival mechanism, so each time we are faced with ANY stressor, our body becomes solely concerned with fighting or fleeing from the perceived threat.

During the stress response, cortisol aids in moving blood flow towards the brain, large muscles, and limbs instead of the digestive tract. This is preparing the body to FIGHT or FLEE danger.  Therefore, our body is not concerned with digestion, and actually suppresses it.  In other words, when the body goes into fight, flight, or freeze mode, digestion essentially shuts down. This can be a huge issue for someone who is constantly experiencing stress.

Chronically high cortisol negatively affects stomach acidity levels and gut motility. In many cases, constipation can occur, meaning the system is unable to rid itself of waste, leading to bloating, gas, and/or stomach pain. It can also lead to development or exacerbation of various gastrointestinal disorders such as IBS-C, IBS-D, GERD, Crohn’s Disease, and more.

Additionally, chronic stress can adversely affect intestinal permeability. Normally, the intestinal lining functions as a barrier, prohibiting the passage of toxins, antigens, and harmful bacteria from entering the gut lumen. This blocks pathogens from entering the blood stream. In the state of stress, the production of cortisol directly affects the intestinal lining as it increases permeability. Pathogens are able to move through, leading to a term you may have heard called, “leaky gut”. Leaky gut can consequently result in inflammation and irritation to the mucosal lining, which can in turn lead to nutrient and mineral deficiencies. Leaky gut has also shown to contribute to thyroid disorders, such as Hashimotos, as well as majority of other autoimmune disorders.

Stress also has a direct effect on gut microbiome. It causes an imbalance of good and bad bacteria, as much of the good bacteria is wiped out by the sympathetic nervous system. The gut microbiome plays a large role in the immune system. The gut mucosal immune system acts as a protective barrier for the intestinal tract. If there are pathogenic bacteria present in the microbiome ( SIBO) and/or not as many good bacteria (dysbiosis), this leads to immunity dysfunction and potential development of disease.

Maintaining your digestive health is essential as it plays a vital role in our immune system, hormonal health, and even mental health (80% of neurotransmitters are made in the gut). It’s extremely important to explore stressors, and work to lower your perception of stress, to ultimately keep your digestive system, and body as a whole, healthy.


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