The global crisis of 2020 has impacted each and every one of us. We have all had to find new ways to work, live, and connect. Worrying about the near and distant future has affected our mental, emotional, and physical bodies. The many health effects that people are feeling, has directly correlated with the heightened state of alertness and vigilance we have had to adapt to during this time. With the endless state of uncertainty, suffering, and negativity happening all around us each day, it is no wonder that our bodies are crying out with new symptoms. It is easy to see how stress triggers us to experience panic, anxiety, fatigue, and insomnia. However, you may not be aware of how stress impacts your digestive health.
More and more studies are showing the relationship with the “gut- brain connection”, as well as, the physiological influences that our state of mind has on our digestion. The two systems are linked and have actually developed from the same embryological tissue in the womb. The most significant player is the gut brain relationship is the Vagus nerve. Like all central nerves, the Vagus nerve can be in the sympathetic state or the parasympathetic state. The common names for these states are “fight or flight” and “rest and digest” respectively.
When your body is feeling in a fight or flight state from stress, global pandemics, or whatever else may be going on in your life; you are unable to simultaneously be operating in rest and digest. This is why eating on the run can lead to constipation, acid reflux, or indigestion. For a more in-depth explanation of irritable bowel syndrome including the serotonin connection, read our April newsletter article here.
One increasingly common digestive dysfunction is SIBO (Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth). A common thread among SIBO sufferers is a vast amount of stress or long-term high levels of stress before symptoms started. With high levels of ongoing stress, the body can kick into survival mode and will do everything it can to avoid the rest and digest state. One way this is done digestively, is to reduce stomach acid toavoid spending vital potential life-protective energy on the digestive state. The consequences of reduced stomach acid are poor digestion of food, heartburn, and nutritional deficiencies. This contributes to creating an environment for bacteria to overgrow in the small intestine, wherein SIBO is activated. This is where we see evidence of stress impacting the gut-brain connection.
So, what can you do when stress is unavoidable?
The most important thing you can do is work on finding and nurturing peace within. I counsel patients daily on creating intentional habits that promote the parasympathetic state. The hardest part for most patients is switching from a state of constantly “doing”, to the more uncomfortable state of simply “being”. It is important to have awareness in how you navigate through life and begin to create a practice of stillness. This will help you to listen to your inner gut response, which will allow you to follow your body’s cues to rest. Then you’ll be more able to experience time in the parasympathetic “restorative” nervous system response. Cultivating a practice of mind and body awareness, will help unwind these patterns. One example is noticing where you hold stress by unconsciously clenching a part of your body when your nervous system is triggered and then relaxing it. The practice of consciously carving out time to create a habit of relaxation will also help you prevent further health problems in the future.
This can look very different from person to person, here are a few ideas to get you started:
- 10 minutes of guided meditation daily: Apps: Calm, Insight Timer, Headspace
- Square breathing: inhale for a count of 5, hold the breath in for count of 5, exhale for 5, hold exhale for 5; repeat 5 times.
- Stretching: roll your shoulders in each direction 5 times, shake your head yes 5 times and no 5 times, draw a figure 8 with your hips in each direction 5 times, bend at waist or sit, and reach for your toes for 15 + seconds.
- Practice Yin yoga – holding each stretch for 3 minutes and taking nice deep breaths.
- Visit a float tank studio: read more about them here.
- Solo walks practicing a walking meditation, noticing your surroundings.
- Journaling thoughts, emotions, struggles, and successes.