Science has shown that there is a strong connection between the gut and the brain. You know that emotions often produce a feeling in your gut if you think about anytime you had to give a speech in front of a group of people and felt the tingling butterfly sensation. This connection is a two-way one in that the brain can signal the gut to specific reactions and the gut can signal the brain. This is important to know if you have symptoms of intestinal problems because it could be that your problems are being caused by a signal from the brain that is the result of something like stress or it could be that physical gut symptoms or poor gut health are signaling the brain to create stress or anxiety. Which of these is occurring can make a difference in how these symptoms should be treated.
Stress Effects on the Gut
You probably know that stress can have many different negative effects on your health. In the case of your gut, it can interfere with digestive health and cause problems with normal digestion and if you have an intestinal disorder or disease, stress can cause symptoms to worsen. According to Kenneth Koch, MD, professor of medicine, gastroenterology section and medical director of the Digestive Health Center at Wake Forrest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., every part of your digestive system can be affected by stress. For example, did you know stress can interfere with the normal movement and contractions that happen in your gut? It can also cause the digestion process to stop or slow down by alerting the central nervous system to reduce blood flow and the secretions necessary for digestion. Stress can be responsible for symptoms that stem specifically from your gut such as cramps, diarrhea, and heartburn, leave you more vulnerable to infections and lead to inflammation in the gut. It can create spasms in the esophagus and an increase in stomach acid as well as affect the colon causing either constipation or diarrhea.
All of this is possible because the intestinal system is dependent on neurons and neurotransmitters and communicating with the central nervous system like the brain is. Since this gut-brain connection is so strong, often people with intestinal problems can find relief by dealing with their stress and anxiety. The reverse can also work for relief. If the gut problems stem from something in the diet such as a food sensitivity, removing that food from the diet can improve the mood and energy levels. There have been many studies showing an improvement in digestive health symptoms when participants used therapy techniques to deal with stress, get treatment for anxiety or for depression versus those that just received standard medical treatments.
So how can you tell if stress or anxiety is the cause of your digestive health problems? Look to see if you have any of the physical, emotional or behavior symptoms associated with stress. This would include tense muscles, frequent headaches, problems sleeping, gaining weight or losing weight, problems focusing or concentrating on tasks or completing them, withdrawing from people, eating more (especially comfort type foods), being nervous, being more forgetful than usual, quick to anger or lose your temper, unable to relax, being over emotional, or feeling that you are under a lot of pressure. Ask yourself when your gut problems started and if there could have been extra stress entering your life at that point. If you feel that you are handling stress well and still have your symptoms, there may be another cause such as some type of food sensitivity. Going through an elimination diet to find what foods you are sensitive to may be useful.
Relieving Stress to Support Digestive Health
If stress is contributing to your gut problems, there are various ways to address it. There are the standard relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, listening to music, biofeedback and aromatherapy and if these work for you then great. It is a good idea to try a variety of techniques to find which one or ones work best for you. Here are a few to try.
Exercise – Being physically active causes the release of endorphins which are brain chemicals that are stress relievers. Start a program of moderate exercise regularly as one way of dealing with stress.
Talk it out – Some people are able to relieve stress by talking it out or venting. Having friends or family to talk to or a mental health specialist that can not only listen to your stress issues, but also lend guidance on ways to deal with stress may be helpful. One study done on people diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome showed a significant improvement in symptoms for 70% of participants who underwent 12 weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy. You might also find it helpful to talk to a spiritual or religious counselor or even get a life coach. If there are issues that you don’t want to share with other people, then you can try journaling and get it all out on paper.
Get organized – With everything there is to do and cram into our busy lives it can sometimes help just to get organized. Make a list of everything you have to juggle on a regular basis and prioritize those things. It might be that setting up a system of where things are kept can help reduce stress. For example, are you trying to get out the door in the morning and can’t seem to find your keys? Installing a hook near the door that you train yourself to always hang your keys on when you come home could help relieve that stressor. There may be things on the list to reconsider the priority of and let go of too. Possibly when you were single your house was always in immaculate order. Now that you have a family and are still trying to work full time there is laundry on the couch or you haven’t vacuumed all week. Maybe it’s time to consider what is really more important when you come home, spending time playing with your kids, cooking a family meal or vacuuming. Give yourself a break and don’t put so much pressure on yourself to be able to do everything you used to do before life changes happened.
Supplement your diet – Whether you are dealing with a physical digestive system disorder or stress is the cause of your gut problem symptoms or you have a combination of both going on, there are diet changes that you can make. Start keeping a food/drink journal to discover if there are any particular foods or drinks that cause your symptoms to be worse. You can also do an elimination diet and stop eating certain foods that you think may be contributing and see if your symptoms improve. There are also supplements you can add to your diet that will help with your digestive health and can help you cope with stress. Taking high quality probiotic supplements such as acidophilus, bifidus, or a full spectrum probiotic supplement can help support your digestive health by supporting the friendly bacteria in your gut. One of your gut functions is producing B vitamins. B vitamins, especially B-12, help us relax, soothe our nerves and help us deal with stress. When we are stressed, we tend to use up our body’s supply of B vitamins just when we need them most and need to replace them. Having healthy probiotics in your gut can give your body a boost to keep producing these vitamins and help your body cope with stress as well as support overall digestive system function and gut health.
Another supplement to consider adding to your diet is this one that contains a proprietary blend of three revered mushrooms, Lion’s Mane, agarikon, and cordyceps, standardized American ginseng (Cereboost®), resveratrol, and AFA bluegreen algae. Here’s what these ingredients have to contribute in terms of stress relief:
Resveratrol – a polyphenol with antioxidant properties found in the skin of red grapes, some berries like blueberries, some Chinese herbs, cocoa and peanuts and has been found helpful in increasing blood flow to the brain and with the antioxidant power to help reduce damage to the body caused by stress.
Lion’s Mane – a mushroom that has been called “nature’s nutrient for the neurons” due to NGF (nerve growth factor) being found in it and that has been found to stimulate nerve growth thus reducing the effects of stress and producing a natural calming effect.
American Ginseng – Chinese medicine has long used ginseng as a calming medicine, to restore balance and increase energy. American ginseng has been found to directly affect the adrenal glands where the adrenalin and cortisone stress hormones are made.
Cordyceps – a mushroom that has been found to work through the adrenal glands to help with reducing effects of chronic stress.
Stress can be a killer literally and the havoc it can wreak on our guts can make life miserable. Give some of these stress solutions a try and see if reducing your stress level has a positive effect on your gut symptoms. There can be relief from the symptoms you have and reducing stress is a good place to start because we can all benefit from stress reduction. Working with your healthcare provider to address your symptoms and reducing your stress may be the best thing you’ll do for yourself this year.
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