Stress can affect our health in significant ways and especially our digestive system. Have you ever suffered symptoms such as stomach cramps, nausea or urgency in bowel motions before a stressful event such as exams or important presentation? This is a simple demonstration of the link between our emotions and our digestive system.
Stress and the Stress response
Stress may be defined as an acute threat to body’s stable internal environment, be it real (physical) or perceived (psychological), and whether posed by events in the outside world or from within ourselves.
Stress induces bodily responses which serve to defend the stability of our body’s internal environment and to help ensure our survival.
Physical responses to stress include rise in blood pressure, rapid breathing and increased heart rate, slowing down of the digestive system and increased muscle tension.
Additionally, our bodies release hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol during stress.
Prolonged stress results in higher levels of these hormones, particularly cortisol which can lead to weight gain, weakened immune function, depression and digestive problems.
Chronic stress and Irritable bowel syndrome
Stressful life events have been associated with the onset or symptom worsening in some of the most common chronic disorders of the digestive system, including functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGD), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD), and peptic ulcer disease (PUD).
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a functional gastrointestinal disorder and is often characterised by lower abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhoea and/or constipation, flatulence, passing mucus in stools and feeling of urgency to open bowels.
The relationship between stress and IBS is complex and multiple other factors including food intolerance or allergy, intestinal infection, injury (e.g., abdominal or pelvic surgery), intestinal inflammation, changes in the intestinal bacteria, abuse and early life learning have been found to contribute to the development of IBS syndrome.
However, numerous studies have also shown that stress is a key contributor to IBS and may, in fact, worsen symptoms.
Evidence from clinical and experimental studies showed that psychological stresses have marked impact on intestinal function such as sensitivity, motility, secretion and permeability.
Managing stress-related digestive problems
- Medical assessment: Many digestive problems have similar symptoms so a medical examination and investigations will need to be performed to confirm a diagnosis of IBS and indeed if stress is implicated in symptoms.
- Manage your levels of stress: The best way to address a stress- related condition is to tackle the underlying stressor and/or find ways to cope with it. Simple techniques such as ensuring adequate sleep; physical activity, talking to friends and family and relaxation techniques like self-hypnosis, mindfulness meditation and breathing exercises may be beneficial in managing stress levels.
- Dietary therapy: For some individuals, dietary manipulation may provide digestive symptom improvement. A food and symptom diary may be beneficial to identify trigger foods. If you are diagnosed with a stress-related digestive disorder, don’t suffer in silence. Address your stress levels and seek help from a health professional.
The symptoms of IBS can be miserable for the individual who may feel powerless, embarrassed or fearful of being in public. Meditation and other relaxation techniques can help a person to manage their stressors and ultimately reduce the physical symptoms that arise from stress.
Visit my website to understand how stress impacts on physical health and how hypnosis and NLP may change how you think and feel, physically, mentally and emotionally. Learn more about Mindfulness Meditation.
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Source: Olivera Kegey (MSc, RD) & Laurene Boateng (MPhil, RD)