Stress is a constant in our lives and in recent months seems to be a national preoccupation. The gastrointestinal tract is most immediately affected by stress and typically there will be a unique manifestation in an individual – heartburn, nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea or constipation. The mechanism by which stress provokes GI symptoms relates to the increased release of stress hormones such as epinephrine (adrenaline), cortisone, growth hormone, etc.
In eons past, the release of stress hormones was beneficial, typically occurring in the context of brief self-limited events provoking a “fight or flight” response – think of the sudden appearance of a saber tooth tiger. In a few seconds these chemicals would increase your heart rate (for running or fighting), increase breathing to oxygenate blood (to optimize running or fighting), divert all blood flow away from the GI tract to your muscles (to maximize strength for running or fighting). Typically these brief encounters would resolve rapidly and you would resume a normal day – fortunately these events were usually infrequent.
In modern times, stress-producing encounters can occur many times during a day – stress events blend into one another during the course of a day without resolution or relief. The net result is that the GI tract will have diminished blood flow for the complete digestion and absorption of nutrition. This constant barrage of stress hormones can lead to chronic GI symptoms that are exacerbated by sleep deprivation, irregular eating habits, sedentary lifestyle and high fat/high carbohydrate meals.
Stress is a constant in all our lives but by understanding the effects on your GI tract one can minimize its impact. Have regular meal times of sufficient duration (minimum 30 minutes) to consume the meal. Do not schedule events concurrent with a meal. Minimize exercise immediately before and after meals. There are many stress reducing techniques that your personal physician can discuss with you.
Other Tummy Trouble will be discussed in future blogs.
Nutrition and the GI tract.