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How do stress and anxiety affect your digestive system?

Stress. We know it all too well. For many, the past year has brought increased anxieties over employment, health and the future. A small amount of stress is healthy, but too much, too often can negatively impact our well-being. 

Stress affects nearly every system in our bodies, but it has a special relationship with our gastrointestinal system. Our digestive system is partially controlled by the central nervous system in the brain and spinal cord. It contains a network of neurons in the lining of the gastrointestinal system, known as the enteric or intrinsic nervous system. This system is so influential that some researchers consider the gut to be like a second brain! That's why understanding our mental health is so important to our overall wellness. When you take care of your brain, you're helping to care for every other system in your body as well. 


What is stress?

When faced with a potentially threatening situation, our sympathetic nervous system responds by triggering a “fight or flight response,” causing the release of the stress hormone cortisol to make the body alert and ready to face the threat. We go into a heightened state of awareness, our heart starts to race and our muscles begin to tense. 

Because our brain and gut are in constant communication with one another, your digestive system may be the first place to experience the effects of stress. This can look like:

-Nausea

-Diarrhea or Constipation

-Loss of appetite/Increase in appetite

-Difficulty swallowing

-Bloating

In severe cases:

-Spasm in the esophagus

-Cramping

-Inflammation

-Imbalance of gut bacteria

-Exacerbation of gastrointestinal disorders such as Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), peptic ulcers, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

There's nothing worse when you're dealing with a bout of anxiety than suddenly getting an upset stomach. The stress response from your brain triggers the response in your gut, which only serves to make your mood worse. It can quickly become a vicious cycle. However, the good news is that there are lots of things you can do to help manage your stress! 


Focus on what you can control

There are two types of stressors: internal and external. External stressors are largely out of our control like the death of a loved one, the loss of a job or a once in a lifetime global pandemic. Internal stressors come from our feelings and expectations, something we have relative control over. We can start by checking in with ourselves and assessing if our baseline needs have been met. Ask yourself:

-Am I hydrated?

-Have I eaten enough today?

-Did I get enough sleep?

Lack of sleep, insufficient food intake and dehydration can all exacerbate stress. Take a moment to eat a snack, drink some water or take a quick rest. Having these basic needs met won't magically make your worries disappear, but they can equip you to better cope with them. 


Eat a balanced and nutritious diet

Healthy food makes our gut and brain happy. However, eating healthy can feel impossible when anxiety takes over. A sudden release of cortisol can leave us reaching for sugary, processed foods out of convenience. Junk food may satisfy you momentarily, but it can ultimately make your mood worse. Our suggestion? Freeze. Everything. Your freezer is now your best friend! Frozen fruits, veggies and meals are a life-saver. They are just as nutritious and take minimal time to prepare. Check out these 15 easy freezer meals for some inspiration. 


Move your body

Yoga has been practiced for thousands of years to connect the mind and body, combining gentle movement with breath and meditation. This practice helps reduce stress, improve circulation and promote the movement of the gastrointestinal tract. Basically, yoga can really help get things moving. Try this flow from Yoga by Adrienne! 

Exercise, of any kind, releases endorphins. Endorphins are the body's natural painkillers. They help us to continue to function in the face of stress or injury. Studies have shown that endorphins play an important role in alleviating depression and anxiety. Taking a walk, going for a short jog or following a workout video are all great ways to boost your mood.