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Stress and the Digestive System

"If there's one thing to know about the human body; it's this: the human body has a ringmaster. The ringmaster controls your digestion, your immunity, your brain, your weight, your health, and even your happiness. This ringmaster is the gut." - Nancy Mure

In today’s world, from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep, we often live a heavily stressful lifestyle. 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. 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 discussions surrounding mental health are 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 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 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. In fact, our gut is also filled with trillions of microorganisms including bacteria, and there is a direct neural connection from our brains to our guts. This means that when our brains react 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 like clockwork. Unfortunately, the reality is that for many people that might not be the case, and a large part of that may be due to the stress our brains, and therefore our guts, experience.

Let’s first 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, let’s use the common example of running away from a bear. In order to transition quickly into a state that will allow for survival, your brain tells your body to increase blood and oxygen flow, heart rate increases, digestion decreases, and the immune system temporarily 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 dedicates all possible energy to necessary functions, while turning off unessential systems. And as a result, things like digestion get pushed to the back burner. Of course, we have an intrinsic ability to destress by returning to normal through decreasing heart rate, blood flow, etc - that's what the "off" switch is for. But with the help of technology and constant notifications along with increased social pressures today, we often don't give ourselves the chance to destress to flip the "off" switch. This is where problems arise. Don't get me wrong - stress is not a bad thing; in the short-term, it can be incredibly beneficial, but problems arise in the long-term.

The reason this is relevant is because as I briefly mentioned above, stress plays a huge role in affecting our digestion. The specific chemical our bodies release from stress is called cortisol, responsible for turning on survival mode. However, cortisol also plays a role in our guts by releasing high levels of acids in our stomachs, heightening feelings of nausea, and over time may cause either constipation or diarrhea. If we don't create mechanisms to destress, our cortisol levels can run high for a long time, and may eventually cause GI problems related to digestion. There is now actually tons of research on how indigestion, acid reflux, and common IBS symptoms we feel internally are caused by our external stress.

The irony behind all of this is that with social media pressures, millions of girls regularly experience heightened stress and anxiety 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.

The last thing I will mention is that chronic, long-term stress can also play a large role in internal inflammation. When under stress for an extended period of time, our body reacts to the heightened levels of cortisol by causing unwanted inflammation. 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 regularly 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 are not designed to experience the high 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, if we aren't able to regulate our stress levels, we may be causing damage. 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 know the consequences of overstressed lifestyles so you can work to avoid digestion issues caused by stress. 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 manually trigger the “off” switch for our nervous systems. 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. And on a final note, now that swimsuit season is amongst us, body confidence is especially important! When in doubt, remind yourself (and your peers) that #SmartGirlsGottaEat. Together, we can make a BIG difference.

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