How stress af­fects the di­ges­tive sys­tem

Central Otago Mirror - - OUT & ABOUT - Q: Over the hol­i­days I didn’t ex­pe­ri­ence any di­ges­tive is­sues, yet, after a few weeks back at work, it ap­pears a lot of di­ges­tive symp­toms are back. Is this just stress? Thanks, Car­lene. A: Dr Libby is a nu­tri­tional bio­chemist, best-sell­ing au­thor and spe

Firstly, your di­ges­tive symp­toms could be a re­sult of a num­ber of un­der­ly­ing health is­sues, so I would cer­tainly en­cour­age you to visit your GP to dis­cuss these con­cerns. Re­search cer­tainly sug­gests there are a num­ber of fac­tors that can af­fect our abil­ity to di­gest and utilise the nu­tri­ents from food in­clud­ing stress hor­mones, caf­feine and med­i­ca­tions.

Stress is par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant to con­sider when it comes to di­ges­tive func­tion, as too many peo­ple spend their days in Sym­pa­thetic Ner­vous Sys­tem (SNS) dom­i­nance – a con­stant state of ‘‘fight or flight’’, with high cir­cu­lat­ing lev­els of adrenalin.

This can have a dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect on our abil­ity to ef­fec­tively pro­duce stomach acid and thus can re­sult in re­flux, di­ges­tive dis­com­fort or lethargy after eat­ing. It has been re­ported that 15-20 per cent of New Zealand women ex­pe­ri­ence Ir­ri­ta­ble Bowel Syn­drome (IBS) symp­toms, and food plays a ma­jor role in this, but so does the re­lent­less pro­duc­tion of adrenalin.

From your body’s per­spec­tive if it thinks you’re pre­par­ing to fight/take flight, it di­verts blood flow away from what it con­sid­ers non-vi­tal pro­cesses and if your life is in dan­ger, di­ges­tion is one of those. All re­sources go into sav­ing your life from the dan­ger your body per­ceives you are in, due to the high lev­els of adrenalin.

I can­not em­pha­sise enough the im­por­tance of ac­ti­vat­ing the rest, di­gest and re­pair arm of the ner­vous sys­tem – known as the Parasym­pa­thetic Ner­vous Sys­tem (PNS) – us­ing breath-fo­cused prac­tice or mind­ful­ness. Ex­tend­ing the length of the ex­ha­la­tion ac­ti­vates this arm of the ner­vous sys­tem as you would never breathe this way if your life truly was in dan­ger. It there­fore com­mu­ni­cates to ev­ery cell in your body that you are safe and as a re­sult your di­ges­tive pro­cesses are pri­ori­tised not com­pro­mised.

Given there are no teeth be­yond our mouth, we need to be re­ally con­scious of food in­hal­ing – for ex­am­ple, sit­ting down at your desk and lit­er­ally en­gulf­ing your lunch, as you com­plete another task. This dou­ble whammy of not be­ing mind­ful and eat­ing too quickly is un­for­tu­nately a very com­mon sce­nario in work­places.

For one week re­ally fo­cus on chew­ing your food, chew each mouth­ful un­til the food has been suf­fi­ciently bro­ken down. This may vary de­pend­ing on the in­di­vid­ual but 20 times per mouth­ful is a good start. You may no­tice that you want to put

another fork­ful of food into your mouth while you are still chew­ing the first one. Re­sist this and wait un­til you have swal­lowed your well-chewed food be­fore you put the next mouth­ful in.

The old adage you are what you eat isn’t quite cor­rect; in­stead you are what you eat, ab­sorb and as­sim­i­late. Simple gut-sup­port­ing strate­gies such as chew­ing your food prop­erly, tak­ing ap­ple cider vine­gar in water be­fore meals and not drink­ing water with meals may as­sist your di­ges­tive symp­toms.


Sit­ting down at your desk while eat­ing lunch is not to be rec­om­mended.

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