I went to countless doctors with my digestive issues and was never asked about my stress and anxiety levels and, as it turned out, my digestion significantly improved once I was able to manage my stress in a healthy way and restore my nervous system to balance. We often hear doctors and medical professionals talk about stress-related medical issues such as high blood pressure and heart health, but we don’t hear too much about the connection between stress and digestion.
Many of us have suffered from chronic stress and anxiety at some point in our lives, or at least know someone who has and it is important that we understand the effects of anxiety on the digestive system. I could write at length about this issue using medical jargon and pictures to accurately describe the digestion process and the effects of anxiety on that process, but I want to approach this subject from a very basic position.
Most of us are familiar with the concept of “fight or flight.” When we experience anxiety (fear, extreme stress, etc) our bodies go into fight or flight mode as a defense mechanism. Very simply, the body prepares itself to either fight the situation in front of it, or run out of there. The human body is so intelligently designed and our ability to go into fight or flight mode is one of those amazing tricks our bodies have used to stay alive for centuries. Going into fight or flight mode is necessary to survive, but many of us experience this when it’s not at all necessary.
One of the first doctors I spoke to when I began having panic attacks in New York City (the beautifully hectic place in the photo featured above) said to me, “we need fight or flight mode. Our ancestors needed it when they were confronted by a lion or a snake, but the problem is that many people today experience those same feelings of anxiety when there is no lion or snake in front of them.” Many of us in the modern world go into fight or flight mode on a regular basis due to the many stressors in our lives, and it is wreaking havoc on our digestion.
The reasoning behind this is simple. When our bodies go into fight or flight mode, they concentrate energy on the processes needed to either fight or flight, and nothing else. Is digestion necessary to battle a threatening situation in front of you? Nope. Is digestion necessary to run quickly away? Nope. So, when we are in anxiety mode our bodies don’t put energy into digesting our food and food that is not properly digested manifests itself in various forms (heartburn, gas and bloating, diarrhea/vomiting, vitamin deficiencies etc). Think about how you feel when you are stressed or anxious- perhaps you feel tense, your heart is racing, you’re a little bit shaky, your chest feels tight- and then think about asking your body to properly digest food when you are feeling that way. Dietary changes can work wonders for those suffering from poor digestion, but we need to also take into account where our energy is while we are eating and digesting.
If you go to a standard Western doctor and complain of digestive issues, you probably won’t get asked about your stress levels, but ignoring that factor is like saying you’ve completed a puzzle with 1 piece missing. We need to make sure we give our bodies ample space and energy to digest our food. If you suffer from inexplicable digestive distress, consider the state of your nervous system and take some steps to find a healthier and more balanced mental state and see if that has any effects on your digestion.