Many of my patients are well aware of the stressors in their lives. During their initial intake, many patients ask me, “Are my symptoms just due to stress, or are they actually physical symptoms?” While every case is different, my typical answer is, “Probably both.”
Chronic stress can wreak havoc on the body, and what I’ve found after years of clinical practice is that everyone has at least one “weak spot” in their body. This is the organ or organ system that becomes symptomatic first when life gets difficult. For many people, this happens to be the digestive system.
So how does stress impact digestion? Below are the top eight ways:
Reduced Blood Flow to the Digestive Organs: When you’re stressed, your body’s “fight or flight” response is activated, which diverts blood away from non-essential functions like digestion and redirects it to vital organs and muscles. This can lead to reduced blood flow to the stomach and intestines, slowing down the digestive process.
Changes in Appetite: Stress can affect your appetite in different ways. Some people may lose their appetite, leading to reduced food intake, while others may turn to comfort eating and overconsume high-calorie, low-nutrient foods. These changes in eating habits can disrupt digestion and overall nutritional balance.
Increased Stomach Acid Production: Stress can stimulate the production of stomach acid. While this is a normal response, chronic stress can lead to excessive acid production, which may contribute to conditions like gastritis or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Altered Gut Motility: Stress can impact the movement of food through the digestive tract. It can lead to spasms in the intestines, causing diarrhea or constipation in some individuals. These disruptions in gut motility can also exacerbate conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Impaired Nutrient Absorption: Chronic stress can reduce the efficiency of nutrient absorption in the intestines. This can lead to nutrient deficiencies over time, as the body may not adequately absorb essential vitamins and minerals from food.
Altered Gut Microbiota: Stress may influence the composition and diversity of the gut microbiota, the community of microorganisms that reside in the digestive tract. Changes in the gut microbiota can affect digestion, metabolism, and overall gut health.
Increased Sensitivity to Pain: Stress can lower the threshold for perceiving pain in the digestive system. This can make gastrointestinal symptoms, such as abdominal discomfort or bloating, feel more pronounced and distressing.
Immune System Suppression: Prolonged stress can weaken the immune system, making the digestive tract more vulnerable to infections and inflammatory conditions.
So now that we know how stress can weaken and even damage the entire intestinal tract, what can we do about it? Can we just meditate or deep breathe our symptoms away? Well, yes and no. Of course, stress-modification techniques are extremely helpful at reversing all of the symptoms mentioned above. But many times, specific therapeutics that are directed at the intestinal tract itself will speed up the healing process exponentially.
While the treatment varies greatly from patient to patient based on their exact symptoms and pathology, a few of the most common treatments I advise for stress-related digestive problems are as follows:
- Digestive enzymes to supplement the deficiency created by stress.
- Intestinal anti-inflammatories to sooth gastritis and damage to intestinal cells.
- Comprehensive multivitamins to combat acquired deficiencies.
- Food intolerance testing and temporary elimination to remove additional stress from the gut and allow for faster healing.
- Adaptogenic herbs and nutrients to regulate cortisol output.
- Antimicrobial herbs and probiotics to address specific gastrointestinal infections.
It is always important to identify and treat the underlying cause of a disease. But in the case of stress-related illness, a treatment protocol that addresses both the stress response and also the disease itself is often much more effective than stress-reducing techniques alone.
Dr. Katie Nuckolls is a naturopathic physician and owner of Thrive GI: Natural Digestive Medicine in Vancouver, Washington. She currently sees patients that live in Washington, Oregon, and Arizona using telemedicine. Starting at the end of October 2023 she will offer in-office visits for patients living in the Vancouver/Portland metro area. For more information, visit our contact page or schedule a free 15-minute consultation online.