There was a time in my life when if someone had told me that I needed to reduce my stress, I probably would have punched them in the face. (A sure fire sign that I was under too much stress.) It really bugged me that the reason for every ailment I was dealing with was “stress.” To be fair, women hear this crap at the doctor’s office all the time. “You’re just under too much stress,” they say to everything from an allergic reaction to a cardiac event. Not helping!
Anyway, I was tired of hearing that I needed to reduce my stress and wanted real solutions. I wanted more energy. I wanted better digestion. I wanted to get the shit done on my todo list. I wanted to have better skin. The list could go on and on.
At the time (I was running a business and going to nursing school and raising two daughters) I decided to focus on digestion because that was the big problem for me. I started doing many of the steps I talked about last week. As my gut health improved, my stress level decreased. My energy increased and some pretty interesting things started happening.
Separately, because of the brain health benefits, I started trying to meditate. I say “trying” because it’s difficult for me to sit still and meditation is hard. I’ve been doing it for several years now and it’s still difficult.
At any rate, with the meditation attempts I found my stress level decreasing simply due to a learned ability to no longer react to situations and deep breathing, LOTS of deep breathing – I had two teenage daughters!.
Over time my gut health dramatically improved and my ability to manage stress improved too. Turns out there’s a direct connection between gut health and stress. Some things you learn the hard way!
Stress Reduces Blood Flow to Your Stomach
Acute stress causes a fight or flight response. This response is meant to give you a fighting chance in a life or death situation. Blood flow is channeled away from systems that aren’t needed at the moment and delivered to your muscles and your cardiovascular system so you can run like hell or fight like hell. Unfortunately, our body doesn’t know the difference between stress from your job or stress from being stalked by a mountain lion.
So many people spend most of their waking time in this state of chronic stress. This means they’re just not digesting well. There’s not sufficient blood flow to your gut to process your food.
The result…diarrhea, constipation, gas and bloating, and cramping. It can also lead to weight gain because you’re not digesting the nutrients your body needs AND the release of cortisol can make you crave starchy carbs and sugar to fuel your stress response.
So in addition to weight gain and chronic digestive and elimination issues, stress can cause the protective substances in your stomach to become depleted leaving your stomach lining more susceptible to the naturally occurring acids in your stomach. This can cause nausea, heartburn, and gerd. Most people just pop an antacid to manage these symptoms but that can cause worse problems down the road. Chronic use of cid reducing medications like PPIs have been linked to dementia.
The key isn’t to stop popping antacids but to learn to manage stress.
Due to the slow down in your digestive process along with other factors caused by the stress response, including reduced oxygenation, studies have shown that bacterial overgrowth can happen as a result of chronic stress (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3039072/?tool=pubmed, https://physoc.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1113/JP276431, http://www.jpp.krakow.pl/journal/archive/12_11/pdf/591_12_11_article.pdf)
So what can you do?
My motto for about a year was, “Calm the fuck down.”
Not very zen but it worked for me. I started paying more attention to what stressed me out and I started making changes. Not big changes, I don’t really like those.
I made small changes like getting up 15 minutes earlier in the morning so I could sit quietly, alone, with a cup of coffee. I bought a programmable coffee maker and the best coffee I could justify affording and enjoyed the hell out of those 15 minutes.
I started exercising more and “working” less. I created working systems that supported me to be more productive and I hung out more with my friends. There are lots of little things that you can do to reduce stress and there are simple steps you can take to improve your gut health.
The most important step is to DO SOMETHING. It doesn’t have to be dramatic and huge (that’ll probably just stress you out.) Instead, take a step that you know you can manage and start working on improving your health and your life.