Stress and the digestive system

Betsy Blitch

Whether we like it or not, in today’s world, we live a heavily stressed lifestyle from the moment we wake up to the moment we got to sleep. With the combination of social media, peer pressure, lowering acceptance rates from universities, and the pressure to have a job, internship, etc., the average adolescent absorbs an exorbitant amount of stress in just a day. Combine that with big life changes such as moving schools, parents getting divorced, or breaking up with a boyfriend/girlfriend, and it’s no wonder that mental health is so prevalent today. In fact, as written on the “About” page, part of the inspiration for Smart Girls Gotta Eat was just by observing the ridiculous social standards and pressure everyone feels the need to live up to. Regardless, the point is that today, beyond just adolescents, our bodies are experiencing stress like never before. And yet while many people are often aware of the external stress factors in their lives, they simultaneously have no clue how these factors can wreak havoc internally, specifically within their digestive systems. 


Today’s article is dedicated to talking about stress and the gut-brain, and how these two things go hand in hand. 


Have you ever experienced the common gut-wrenching stress or had butterflies in your stomach from nerves? If so, then you are familiar with the roughly 100 million neurons in your gut, better known as the gut-brain. Up until recently, the idea of neurons in our gut was not widely known, but now there is extensive research dedicated to understanding the gastrointestinal system and how the neurons in our gut are incredibly important. In fact, our gut is filled with trillions of microorganisms including bacteria, and there is a direct neural connection from our brains to our guts, and vice versa. This means that when our brain is reacting to external factors – both good and bad – our guts are affected as well. The reason this is so important is because our gut and brain work together by releasing enzymes that assist in breaking down food. In an ideal world, our bodies would magically digest anything and everything we put in our bodies, just like clockwork. Unfortunately, the reality is that for many people that might not be the case, and a large part of that is due to the stress our gut enzymes experience. 


To begin, let’s talk about how stress affects the brain in general. To make things simple, you can think of your nervous system as having both an “on” and “off” switch – one works to ramp up your nervous system in times of stress and the other works to calm your body down afterwards. When the switch is on, your body goes into what we call “fight-or-flight” mode. To better understand this mode and our body’s reactions, let’s use the common example of someone running from a bear – the brain tells the body to increase blood and oxygen flow, heart rate increases, digestion decreases, and the immune system shuts off. Side note – every wondered why everyone magically gets sick around exams? A large part of it has to do with such high levels of stress and our body’s intrinsic response to turn off our immune systems. Anyways, when stressed out, our body goes into survival mode and dedicates all possible to energy to necessary functions. This would be great if we were running from bears all the time, but the reality is that our ancestors benefitted from this much more than we are now. Don’t get me wrong – stress can be beneficial in the short term. But on the contrary, things can quickly turn for the worse if we experience long-term stress or are incapable of triggering the “off” system and relaxing. On the other hand, the “off” switch of our nervous system works to return things back to normal by decreasing heart rate, blood flow, etc. and bringing back digestion to a normal level. However, this can only take place when the stressors are removed, and we are given a cue that we can relax. And as a result of the nonstop stressors we experience in all aspects, our bodies don’t get enough cues to destress, and we often spend too much time in the “fight-or-flight” mode. 


As I briefly mentioned above, stress plays a huge role in affecting our digestion. Specifically, when our bodies are stressed out, our brains release a chemical called cortisol. If we were running from a bear regularly, this would be great. However, we are not (or at least I hope not), and the increased levels of cortisol can be the opposite of beneficial. This is because the release of cortisol caused by stress results in an increase in acids in our stomachs, feelings of nausea, and either constipation or diarrhea. There is now tons of research on how indigestion, acid reflux, and common IBS symptoms are caused by the stress we experience. In fact, in many cases, there is actually nothing internally wrong with the bodies of those who are familiar with indigestion. Most people are actually just overstressed, and as a result, normal digestion gets pushed to the backburner.  


The irony behind all of this is that with social media pressures, millions of girls are out there stressing about their body image, the food they are eating, etc. And what happens as a result? They may actually be inhibiting their body’s ability to digest and break down food, thus furthering the problem and their stress levels. It’s a vicious cycle. 


Additionally, on top of stress affecting digestion (or lack thereof), it also plays a large role in inflammation. This can be a result of chronic stressors that last a long time. When our body is in under stress for an extended period of time, we can experience high levels of inflammation internally. This gets into all sort of issues in our GI system that nobody wants – irritable bowel disorders, leaky gut, etc. To prevent and/or combat these levels of inflammation, anti-inflammatory foods can be helpful to include in your diet. Some of the best foods for this are berries, fatty fish like salmon (ie. foods with high levels of omega-3s), broccoli, avocados, ginger, garlic, and nuts. There are tons more – the list does not stop there, but these are some quick suggestions that have also been mentioned in earlier articles for additional benefits. 


The bottom line is that our bodies were never engineered to experience the levels of stress many of us tolerate on a day-to-day basis. While our “fight-or-flight” mode might have been particularly useful to our ancestors for short-term stress, we might actually be hurt from this internal system. We need to realize the turmoil we may be causing by stress factors in our lifestyles. If you are someone who experiences IBS, acid reflux, or another similar GI system, you may want to work to reduce external stressors. And if you are lucky enough to have avoided these GI disorders, it is still good to realize what causes stress in your life to increase your awareness. Practices like meditation and yoga may be essential for all of us – when we deepen and slow down our breathing for roughly 10-15 minutes, we are actually able to trigger the “off” switch for our nervous systems, allowing our bodies to destress and resume normal bodily functions. So take a deep breath and don’t forget to smile – you will not only be helping your stress levels but also your internal digestion, immune system, and inflammation. Carpe diem and turn off the news. 


Going forward, we are switching to the summer schedule with biweekly postings on Mondays. Now that swimsuit season is amongst us, body confidence is especially important. When in doubt, remind yourself and your peers that #SmartGirlsGottaEat.