Your Guts and Stress: The Connection and How to Fix It
Have you ever had a ‘gut’ feeling about something? Have you ever felt so nervous that you had butterflies in your stomach and felt queasy? Has stress ever caused you diarrhea or constipation? I think most of us have had some experience of the connection between our thoughts and emotions and our guts.
In Western Medicine, we recognize Irritable Bowl Syndrome (IBS), a chronic condition involving gastrointestinal issues such as pain, bloating, cramping, constipation and/or diarrhea. A main trigger for these symptoms is stress. Studies are encapsulating IBS as a microbiome-gut-brain axis disorder, recognizing that those with the disorder tend to have an imbalance in their gut flora. Studies have even identified specific probiotics as psychobiotics - live microorganisms with potential mental health benefits.
Chinese Medicine has long recognized the connection between the digestive system and the mind. We know that when we are stressed, our body contracts and tenses, leading to stagnation of our systems. The digestive system is known to be one of the primary systems affected. We know that if we tend to over-think, worry and ruminate our thoughts, our difficulty in digesting our thoughts relates to issues with digesting our food too. If we have trouble integrating our experiences, we can have trouble with metabolizing and absorbing our food nutrients too.
This can also be explained from a Western point of view of the Fight or Flight Response. When we are stressed, on a physiological level, our body perceives danger as a threat to our survival. Our self-preservation mechanism kicks in and triggers the fight or flight response. That is, our body doesn’t know the difference between work/relationship/financial stress and being chased by a hungry lion. It prepares to run by diverting energy and blood flow away from the digestive system and into the muscles, contracting them for strength and action.
It’s important to remember that this mind-gut connection is a two-way road. Our stress and worry can give us indigestion but an imbalanced gut can lead to anxiety, misery and a negative mind-frame too. It doesn’t matter if it starts in the gut or the mind, an imbalance in one perpetuates discord in the other. So how can we break the cycle?
We must work to balance both the gut and the mind.
Tips on healing both:
-Figure out what foods are irritating your bowel. Consult a professional health care provider who can help you assess the best diet for your body. You may want to try an elimination diet to determine what foods are aggravating your gastrointestinal tract.
-Drink warm fluids, as cold ones tend to make your digestive system contract while warm ones help it to relax and absorb. Try to drink most fluids between meals and only take small sips during meals so as to avoid over-diluting your digestive enzymes.
2. Eating habits:
-Eat regular meals at regular mealtimes, avoiding eating past 8pm.
-Chew thoroughly before swallowing – the amylase in your saliva plays an important role in the first steps of digestion.
-Avoid eating on the run or multi-tasking while eating, as this allows your body to put as much of its energy into digesting as possible.
-Avoid over-eating, this puts a lot of strain on your digestive system and causes it to weaken, get backed up and stagnate.
-Eat with the seasons. Avoid eating cold and raw foods in the Fall and Winter. Save those light and refreshing meals for the Spring and Summer seasons and get cozy with comfort slow cooked root vegetable stews and bone broths in the colder months instead.
-Go for a walk after meals, this stimulates the digestive process, facilitating proper circulation and healthy movement throughout the digestive tract.
4. Tummy comfort:
-Massage your belly daily in a clock-wise circular motion moving from the belly-button outward.
-You may find comfort in placing a hot water bottle over your belly or on your lower back. This helps the tummy muscles and digestive tract to relax.
-Acupuncture helps to reduce stress and harmonize the digestive system. It increases circulation, decreases inflammation, strengthens digestive weaknesses and unblocks stagnation. Studies show that it reduces nausea, bloating and pain and also relieves stress.
6. Mindfulness Meditation
-Eat mindfully, be present with your food. Take the time to enjoy preparing, cooking and eating your food. Pay attention to the smell, texture, and flavour of your food. You’ll be surprised at how much more vitality you will get from doing this.
-Practice mindful meditation. Download a free app that can help you practice breath awareness, and belly breathing, which shifts your body from the sympathetic nervous system into the parasympathetic nervous system. It counteracts the fight or flight response and studies have shown that not only does it decrease stress, but it has a myriad of other health benefits too.
7. Herbs and Supplements:
-Classical Chinese herbal formulations have been used for thousands of years to effectively treat various digestive and mental emotional disorders. However, there is no one-size fits all, it’s important to consult a registered Chinese Medicine Practitioner who can determine the right herbal formula customized for your body’s particular constitution.
-Consult a professional health care provider about what supplements can help to support your digestive system. Probiotics have been shown to decrease cortisol levels in the body and reduce anxiety.
Our digestive system is a big part of our foundation. Our guts are in the middle of our bodies, at our center. We are literally made up of what we ingest and our digestive system substantiates us. It embodies how we nourish and nurture ourselves. And it connects with how we digest our thoughts and experiences. We must take care of our Mind and our Gut because we are what we eat and our thoughts create our world!
Dr. Alda Ngo