Stress and Digestion

Ever noticed any of the following symptoms during periods of stress and anxiety :-
i. Heartburn or acid reflex, even though you have had the right foods over the last few days?
ii. Always craving for more food?
iii. Nausea or pain or tendency to Vomit?
iv. Irregular bowel movement?

The message that a major source of stress is sending to your body is, ‘Hold on. Here’s a major source of stress. To deal with it, I need all the ammunition I can get. So let’s deal with something as unimportant as digestion, later!” The autonomic nervous system has two parts – the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic is meant to prepare you for any quick activity while the latter takes care of the slower processes of the body such as digestion. If the body is exposed to prolonged stress, the parasympathetic is typically in shut-down mode while the sympathetic is in overdrive all the time. (If you look at someone who has been exposed to stress for a long time, and if his limbs shiver or he experiences what are ‘essential tremors’, chances are that the sympathetic nervous system has been in over-drive for long!) As a result of the parasympathetic system being down, the contractions that your intestines are required to go through in order to digest food, all stop; blood flow to the gut also reduces while it is supplied to the extremities. Your body is trying to make all resources necessary for quick flight – or fight – so as to tackle what it perceives as the stressor at hand.

Over a period of time, this combination of lack of food as well as poor digestion leads to ulcers. Worse still, is that you may be eating well and heartily but stress can ensure that nutrition absorption is at a minimum. And, without noticing stress, you’d wonder why your haemoglobin count, for instance, is so much lower than the required level! Stress can also lead to poor secretion of saliva. This impacts the release of the enzyme amalyase. This in turn interferes with digestion of carbohydrates. Good choice of food that gives preference to proteins, over carbohydrates, is preferred during such times. During times of stress, the body is sending signals to the digestive system that it should store the food as fat. How does that happen? When stress-induced hormones are released in blood, which is significantly higher than in normal times of no-stress, they make the body less sensitive to insulin. Insulin controls the level of sugar in the blood. This leads to a condition called pre-diabetes and when left unaddressed quickly progresses to diabetes.
Further, poor sensitivity to insulin leads to inflammation and consequent build-up of fat storage in the body! Finally, major levels of stress typically lead to a condition of poor enthusiasm and energy. As a result, even one who is regular in his fitness workouts, may tend to give up easily. Lethargy sets in and the cycle becomes vicious.
Poor exercise regimen, poor appetite, poor absorption of nutrients, lesser energy, more tiredness…. Whoa, whoa, whoa! Skipping Meals Those exposed to stress may well put on weight due to the above reasons. Once this becomes noticeable, and with today’s excesses not allowing time for exercise, the obvious choice is to skip a meal. Actually, this isn’t a wise move. Studies have shown that skipping a meal actually makes you binge more when you finally get your hands on food. This is because, your body goes into fasting mode. The signals it gets are that food is hard to come by, as a result of which it tends to store more and more fat – achieving exactly the opposite of the desired effect.

So, stress less, sleep right, eat right and you’ll feel good about yourself!