Stress and digestive issues

Did you know that the reason your gut may be roiling may be due in large part to stress? Whether it is Irritable Bowel Syndrome, ulcerative colitis, or simply a stomach ache before you are about to give that really important speech, stress may be playing a significant role.

If you’ve been following along on this mini stress-series over the last couple of weeks, you probably can figure out exactly how stress can upset your gut, right?

If you are hiking in the woods, you round a corner and come face-to-face with a grizzly bear, your body is not going to prioritize digestion at this moment. Instead, it’s going to go "Oh sh*#t" – quite literally!  If you were given enough of a fright, you probably will soil yourself to immediately get rid of anything in your digestive tract.

It’s harder to run on a full stomach, so your body thinks it’s doing you a favour! Suddenly all the blood leaves your gut and floods your muscles so you can better use them. Perfect response for a dire situation.

(Running is about the last thing one should do if you chance upon a grizzly bear, as you can’t out run them, and if you run, they are very likely to chase. I think you are supposed to slowly back away, and be very sure you are not getting between a mom and her cub!  Please research this topic on your own, if you are going into bear country.)

Back to stress. If your body is chronically stressed for whatever reason, (the stress bucket runneth over), be it emotional, work or relationship stress, financial stress, chronic pain or disease, chronically poor nutrition, inadequate sleep, inadequate or too much exercise, a fungus or parasite problem, chemical or heavy metal toxicity, or any combination of the above, your parasympathetic nervous system, the rest and repair system that is in charge of digestion is turned down, and your sympathetic system (fight or flight) system is turned up. 

This means that blood is diverted away from the gut, and if this happens chronically, the body has a very hard time digesting food.  This leads to poor absorption of nutrition, and a very unhappy stomach, intestine and colon.

Stress, as shown in the example above, also can affect intestinal motility, in some showing up as the runs, often in anticipation of a big event, and in others as constipation if there is poor coordination between the small and large intestine.

Ulcers have been linked to stress for a long time, and when it was proposed that ulcers were actually caused by the bacteria H. Pylori, the theory was received with skepticism, until it was proven in subsequent studies.

However there is no question that it is the interaction between stress and the bacteria that causes the ulcers, rather than the bacteria or the stress alone. A little bit of stress and a lot of bacteria can result in stomach ulcers, as can a really major stressor and a very little bit of bacteria.

The interaction that creates the ulcer is poorly understood, one theory being that stress causes a reduction hydrochloric acid secretion, and in turn a reduction in the bicarbonate mucus that coats the stomach wall protecting the stomach walls from the acid. H. Pylori also reduces the stomach mucus. 

At the end of the stressful event, the parasympathetic system ramps up again, digestion is prioritized, more hydrochloric acid is secreted, the inadequate mucus coating is overwhelmed, and the acid eats through the stomach wall giving you an ulcer. Ironically, a reduction in HCl production may create acid reflux type symptoms, so antacids which further reduce HCl don’t resolve the cause of the problem.

To test this, squeeze a lemon or pour a cap full of raw apple cidre vinegar into a small amount of water and drink before a meal, and see if this reduces heart burn symptoms. If so, your heartburn may be as a result of too little HCl as opposed to too much, and HCl tablets with meals may be helpful. If the symptoms become worse, then you may actually have too much HCl, although this is rarely the case.

So, poke some holes in the stress bucket, and bring the chronic stress levels down. My sense is that most stress these days is caused by unresolved emotional issues, so dealing with that aspect is critical.

Learn to reframe problems as opportunities, get professional help from psychologists, psychiatrists or councilors, learn EFT (emotional freedom technique) or NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) – whatever method can work for you to help you deal with emotional stuff. 

Baby yourself with great quality food, play a lot, listen to soothing music, breathe, meditate, do some art work, go for a walk along the beach, enjoy your friends and family, and then go to bed and sleep, sleep, sleep.  For any digestive issue, repopulating the gut with good bacteria through quality probiotics is essential.

Related tips:
Acute vs. Chronic Stress
The autonomic nervous system and fat loss
Dealing with health issues
Learn to let go


Chek, Paul; How to Eat, Move and Be Healthy! Chek Institute, San Diego, CA, 2004.
Sapolsky, Robert M. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: An updated guide to stress, stress-related diseases, and coping WH Freeman and Company, New York, 1998

Copyright 2005-2007 Vreni Gurd

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