How Stress Messes With Your Stomach May 16, 2015 06:08
The enteric nervous system, or the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, is often referred to as the “second brain.” That’s because much like your brain, the GI tract relies on the same types of neurons and neurotransmitters to complete specific functions, as well as maintain communication with the central nervous system. Have you ever noticed that fluctuations in your emotions cause a reaction in your stomach? You may feel butterflies with love, nausea with anxiety, or gut-wrenched with fear. This is because the brain has a direct effect on the GI system.
This also means that when you’re experiencing stress—whether chronic stress or ongoing tension from small daily stressors—your gastrointestinal health is impacted. Psychological stress can impair contraction of the GI tract, induce inflammation, and increase susceptibility to infection.
The GI tract/brain connection is so intense, in fact, that research has shown that patients who seek therapy for stress and mental anxiety see a reduction in GI symptoms. The reverse has also been shown: Changes to your diet, such as eliminating certain foods, can improve your mood and energy levels.
Is it stress?
Chronic upset stomach, irritable bowels, and other unpleasant symptoms of the digestive system are the gut’s natural reaction to stress. To minimize the damage to your mental and physical health, you need to identify the source of your discomfort and when it began.
Then, try these strategies for reducing stress:
- Meditation. Try quiet meditation exercises, join a yoga class, or simply find a quiet time and space to unwind. Be sure to take quiet time for yourself on a weekly basis.
- Journal. Sometimes you just need a space to “let it all out.” The pages of a diary can be a great way to rid yourself of stress and free your mind and body from what’s bothering you.
- Make a list. Sometimes managing stress is as simple as writing down and prioritizing what needs to be done.
- Therapy. Talking to a trusted advisor or professional counselor can help ease stress.
Is it diet?
If the stress in your life seems to be under control, yet you still suffer from moodiness, feelings of anxiety, or lack of energy, it may be related to food sensitivities. Food sensitivities are different from food allergies, in that the reaction isn’t as severe and often doesn’t manifest itself for up to three days. Processed foods, gluten, dairy, peanuts, alcohol, soy, sugar, and artificial sweeteners are the top culprits of GI discomfort and diet-related mental anguish.
To determine the source of your GI distress and related symptoms, try an elimination diet. Develop a healthy eating plan that eliminates food items over the course of three to four weeks. This should sufficiently rid your body of the harmful effects each food may be having on your GI tract.
After the 21 to 28 day period, start adding back each food item one at a time, watching for discrepancies in your mental and physical state. Reactions may include—but aren’t limited to—mental fogginess, fatigue, depression, abdominal cramping, upset stomach, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, or acne. If effects aren’t observed after one week, the added food item is a safe part of your intake, and you should choose the next food on the list to add back to your diet. If effects are observed, cut that item out of your regular dining rotation.
Once you’ve finished the elimination diet, you can devise a balanced diet eliminating the foods that cause you distress. Removing these foods from your diet will enhance your energy, improve weight management, boost mental clarity, and may even help you sleep.