Your Body & Stress: A Three Part Series (2 of 3)
Written by: Dr. Kaleigh Coolsaet, ND
Welcome back! In the previous series on your body and stress we discussed the general affects of stress on our bodies and mores specifically our immune system. Read here if you missed it. In this second part we are going to focus on how stress can disrupt our digestive system leading to unwanted symptoms such as bloating, cramping, and heartburn.
First, when talking about stress and our nervous system we have two programs that have allowed us to survive: ‘Fight or Flight’ and ‘Rest and Digest’. These two systems are essential to our survival, and are still present in our bodies today.
Fight or flight is geared towards adapting to a current stressor. We divert blood away from our digestive system and send blood to our muscles so we can run away from that bear or to catch our next meal. We also increase our heart and respiration rates, and our vision becomes more precise. Our senses are heightened so we can survive. Our ability to sense stress and adapt has lead to our survival.
At the other end of the spectrum is rest and digest mode. When we are safe, and recovering from our adventures, we can now send blood to our digestive system so we can properly digest our meals. We also decrease our heart and respiration rate to conserve energy. We don’t need to be on full alert, and our bodies are more focused on repair and regeneration.
So how do these two systems affect our lives today? Its true we aren’t hunter-gatherers focused on catching prey to survive, or running away from bears anymore. Our stressors have changed over time, but we are still constantly bombarded with stress everyday, which leads us to live most of our daily lives in ‘Fight or Flight’. Stress can come in many forms including: social pressures, work, technology, noise, lights, news, etc. From the time we wake to when we go to bed, we are constantly on the go, focused on performance and taking care of others.
So how does this relate to our digestive system? A typical day may include eating on the go, multi tasking while taking your lunch break or skipping meals all together. As I mentioned, when we are in flight or fight mode (working, multitasking, etc.) we divert blood away from our digestive system. This shuts down our digestive capacity, and leads to decreased secretion of stomach acid, and enzymes that are required for proper digestion. When we can’t digest our food properly, it leaves us with those nagging symptoms of heartburn, bloating and cramping.
So to help improve our digestion we need to switch gears and get into ‘rest and digest’ mode. The more time we can spend in rest and digest mode, the more time our body properly digest our meals, repair and regenerate.
Three Simple Steps To Improve Digestion:
- Lemon water or bitters.
The bitter taste from lemons and digestive bitters stimulates our bodies to prime itself for digestion. You need to actually taste the bitterness, so no capsules or added sugar. Simply incorporate one of these 10-15 minutes before your meals.
Taking time before each meal to sit quietly and breathe deeply for 1-2 minutes before meals. This stimulates our vagus nerve, which controls the digestive system. It helps our bodies start to secrete the necessary acid and enzymes for proper digestion.
- Chew Properly
Chewing is our first step in digestion. Taking time to chew not only breaks down our food into small pieces for easy digestion, but also sends signals to our nervous system that it is time to start up the rest of the digestive processes in our stomach and intestines.
The above-mentioned tips are simple ways to help switch your body from fight or flight into rest and digest mode. These tools are best used consistently and in conjunction with sitting down to eat your meals, while focusing on the food you are consuming. No TV, no cell phones, no work while eating. This can be a difficult habit to create, but will help you reduce any unwanted and unnecessary digestive symptoms.
If you have tried these tips consistently with no success, it may be time to consult a naturopathic physician to assess your digestive concerns to determine the root cause and prescribe an appropriate treatment plan.
In our next part of the series we will discuss how stress affects our hormones, and more tips on how to combat stress and improve you health.
Best in Health,