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How stress affects your digestive system?

It all starts with the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which is triggered by the four ephs of: flight, fight, fear and sex. This activation generates a strong secretion of glucocorticoids.

The opposite system, the parasympathetic nervous system, is in charge of bringing everything back to normal, once the moment of one of the above-mentioned ephes has passed.



Stress on insulin release


In an emergency situation, our digestive system mobilizes glucose and fatty acids, and blocks insulin secretion (this is not the time to store energy, since there is an emergency). In addition, our glucocorticoids make our cells less sensitive to insulin.

That combination causes the cells to not store glucose properly and excess glucose and free fatty acids are produced in the blood. Therefore, mixed with chronic stress, our cells do not store glucose and fatty acids efficiently and we also secrete more glucose and fatty acids into the bloodstream. A combo that repeated over time can lead to diabetes.


Poorer functioning of appetite regulators


Our stomach tells us when we are full to stop eating, or when we need to ingest food. Stress causes this thermostat to stop working properly and can lead to two behaviors: eating more and being attracted to unhealthy foods, or on the other hand, suppressing our appetite and stopping eating.

The clear example is when we do a high intensity session and some after the shower are voraciously hungry, and others can’t eat anything until long after. If it happens after that training session it is not a big problem, but if it happens all day long, seven days a week it is problematic.

It can lead to nutrient deficiency problems by not having an appetite and not eating, or the opposite, not stopping to snack on potato chips at work, Donuts at lunch and ultra-processed pizzas at night.



What happens in the brain affects the stomach and vice versa


Too much stress, real or imagined, and poor stress management affect our digestive system when it comes to storing that energy. When we are stressed, eating chocolate cookies may relax us. This is normal on a physiological level since the gut and the brain have direct connections with each other.

It is not only our brain that secretes hormones and substances that make us feel good, our gut also has that task. That is why, just as eating foods rich in sugars and poor quality fats trigger pleasure hormones such as dopamine in our brain, our gut also makes us feel good and reduces stress.


Relationship between the colon and stress


You may have heard of or experienced a situation where someone suddenly defecates suddenly in a moment of immense terror. It is not a common situation, but it is one of the ways stress can affect our digestive system.

It occurs because the job of our intestine is to form stool from the waste left over from digestion. But if that moment comes when the lion runs after us, the waste moves through too quickly, not allowing time for that dry stool to form. That’s why sudden defecation may not be common, but have you ever had diarrhea without knowing why?

There are many other causes to which it may be due, such as the consumption of something bad, or some bacteria. But, moments of very high stress, due to the mechanism we have just explained, can also favor the occurrence of such diarrhea.



Stress and irritable bowel syndrome


Irritable bowel syndrome, also called spastic colon, makes our colon excessively contractile. Contractions of the colon are common to push stool from the small intestine to the anus, and ultimately expel waste when we go to the bathroom.

The problem occurs when these contractions are too frequent, which is another factor that can lead to diarrhea. On the other hand, too many contractions, accompanied by a possible disorganization due to rather long episodes of stress, can push the contents of the colon in the opposite direction.

Stress in the face of a real emergency strengthens us, chronic stress over time due to real or imaginary situations weakens us. This situation opens the door to direct and indirect problems in our digestive system.



Dr. Mansi Shah
Functional Wellness Network

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