Stress is omnipresent these days. That word means that it is always around us. Financial constraints, relationship challenges, health problems, or “you name it”, the stress of it all can negatively affect your gut and vice versa.
Stress is never ending and as human beings in this society, we have a strong desire to deliver purpose in our own life and the lives around us. Regardless of your financial status or how you look, most of us will create stress in order to have purpose on this earth.
Regardless if you are a bazillionaire, have a ton of friends, at the top of your class, and asked to be on the cover of GQ or Glamour magazine, or dirt poor, angry at the world, homeless and alone, you will generate some sort of stress, plain and simple.
Think about even infant babies that stress when hungry or have a wet diaper. You don’t see them contemplating how to make effective changes. Rather they scream, cry, and stress over it until it’s fixed even in the comforting arms of its mother.
Stress can be perceived as good, such as getting married, or bad, like when you unexpectedly lose a pet or a loved one. Since the brain operates in survival mode, it’s job is to alert the body of any threat and notify you accordingly by releasing certain hormones that make you feel certain ways. Let me explain more:
Let’s go over the autonomic nervous system:
There are 2 branches of one of our nervous systems that make the Autonomic Nervous System, the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic. Its actually simple, in the fact that it also has purpose to keep you alive by perceiving your environment in that moment.
The environment can be an infection in your body, a sprained ankle, a job you don’t like, a heated argument, or whatever that your brain perceives as a threat. When the threat is infrequent, it is actually a positive event on the body. Unfortunately, when chronic, it can pose a lot of health problems, especially in the gut.
In regards to the state of our environment and social norms, this is triggered often. Many people drive to be the fittest, wealthiest, most attractive, and the best of the best. At the end of the day, this often proves to not be sustainable long term without adverse health effects.
Fight or Flight?
The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is a division known as the “Fight or Flight”. When your brain perceives something as a threat to survival, such as a dog lunging at you trying to bite you, or you whitnessing a toddler wandering across a busy street all alone, this will activate the SNS to react quickly so who or what is at danger can survive if you take action…..FAST.
When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, it starts a cascade of physiological events that drive many involuntary actions with many different organ systems so the body can react quickly:
- The pupils in your eyes dilate so you can fully observe your surroundings or threats coming at you.
- Blood rushes to your arms and legs so you can quickly act on the threat, usually by running or fighting, whatever needs to happen.
- Your adrenal glands produce a hormone called cortisol that releases sugar and fats in to the blood to supply you with a boost of energy. Have you ever had someone pull out in front of your car or stop quickly in front of you at a traffic light? Did your legs start shaking? Well, that activated your adrenals and flushed cortisol in your system so you could react.
- Your heart pumps faster so you can be ready to GO!
- The blood, as it goes to your legs and arms, it therefore leaves your GI tract and parts of your brain somewhat oxygen and nutrient deficient. This is why some people get stage fright and forget everything they had rehearsed over and over again.
An important note about the SNS: The brain perceives stress as stress. It does not differentiate between good or bad stress as well as emotional or physical stress. Here are some examples:
- Think about when someone goes in to shock or gets injured…..what happens often, they throw up or vomit! Why? The body is not going to waste valuable energy on digestion as it will get rid of what is in there and focus the energy on survival.
- Think about when stress creates irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It alters digestion so much that bowels can slow or stop causing constipation and/or diarrhea as well as leaky gut.
- Ever wonder why endurance athletes have bowel problems during races or heavy training? Doesn’t it make sense that if you stress your body to the max, it will do what it takes to keep up and that means sacrificing gut function to provide the energy for the demands to keep moving?
- The stress of planning a wedding or a big event usually doesn’t entice someone to sit down for a while and enjoy a meal. It’s the body’s way of preserving energy available for the tasks at hand versus on digestion.
Rest and Digest?
Alternatively, there is the second branch of the nervous system called the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). This is the “rest and digest” or “feed and breed” division. It has pretty much the opposite actions of the SNS because its main function is to restore, repair, and regenerate body tissue and organs.
In the PNS:
- Your cognitive focus and function is at its peak.
- Your digestion is the functioning optimally and you are absorbing nutrients.
- Your heart beats slower and manages your blood sugar and blood pressure more consistently
- Your awareness and planning skills are up to par as well as ability to navigate challenges and be around a lot of people in general. Often times you don’t want to socialize unless parasympathetic tone is present.
Most often nowadays, we spend most of our waking hours in an activated SNS zone and only leave the PNS to activate when we sleep. If you have problems sleeping, that puts you in less PNS which means less restoration, repair, and regeneration which is NOT good..
Many conventional docs tell you “Oh, it’s just a part of the ageing system”, which is not really the truth and another conversation…
How stress applies to digestion:
Ok, so now we have covered the two branches of the autonomic nervous system and now you probably want to know how this all applies to stress and gut function. That’s why you have read thus far!
Since stress activates the SNS, it acts on digestion by delivering blood from the digestive tract to the legs and arms, remember? Or are you stressed out enough that blood left your brain and you forgot? LOL!
Blood delivers oxygen and nutrients that power the digestive tract. The digestive tract I am speaking of mostly includes the stomach, pancreas, gall bladder, small intestine, and large intestine. Each part of this incredibly complex system makes up our Enteric Nervous system. This part of the nervous system responds entirely to the SNS and PNS .
Whatever tone is delivered to the ENS affects:
• Your ability to break down proteins
• Your ability to kill pathogens that you accidentally ingest like giardia, parasites, or C Diff.
• Your ability to absorb valuable minerals such as zinc, iron, magnesium, etc…
• Your ability to absorb vitamins such as complex B vitamins and amino acids
• Your ability to break down fats
• Your ability to produce neurotransmitters that regulate mood and prevent depression/anxiety
• Your ability to have a satisfying bowel movement daily to remove toxins from your body and prevent bacterial overgrowth from growing in the intestines.
• AND so MUCH MORE! Do you need more??
Ok, so now you want more parasympathetic tone in your life, don’t you?
Regardless of your current stress status or situation, you can start creating more parasympathetic tone in your body by activating the main connecting nerve from the gut and brain, as well as many other organs.
Lets talk about the infamous VAGUS NERVE!
The vagus nerve is the primary power line that connects you to the PNS and there are many ways to activate it. It’s not an overnight change, but the more you incorporate these exercises or techniques, the more tone you create and the more you will heal, regenerate new tissue, absorb more nutrients, digest more food, and the younger you will appear! Age related disease?? C’MON docs!!
Here are some ways to activate your vagal nerve:
1. Transcutaneous Vagal Nerve Stimulation (tVNS). You can clip a small electrode to your ear and connect it to a simple and programmable TENS unit and stimulate your vagal nerve through the ear. Doing this a few times a week for up to 20 minutes each time makes a huge impact.
I personally notice better sleep, improved digestion (good poops to be precise), and a decreased reactivity to the stress around me after some time doing tVNS. I first noticed this change when what normally seems like my world falling apart was still sometimes falling apart, but I could just observe and not react. I don’t mean really falling apart, but when I am around people that don’t deal well with stress, I don’t attach to their stress anymore. It often doesn’t change or improve the outcome if you attach to their inability to deal with problems anyways! That was a huge awareness for me using this tool.
2. Singing super loud is a great way to activate the nerve connections in your neck. Laughing hard does too!. Turn up some good tunes in your car and sing as loud as you can to where it’s difficult to maintain. You may get a laugh from the person in the car next to you if anything. Try it with a friend and have fun!
3. Make sure you get a deep sleep. Sleeping in a pitch black dark and quiet room, getting to bed before 10pm, and eating all meals from 6am to 6pm are natural ways to help you sleep. L-Theanine, GABA, 5HTP and micronized melatonin are some ideas of supplements that can improve sleep performance.
Less fun options than above, but ones that work:
4. Stimulating your gag reflex with a tongue depressor or after you brush your teeth. Don’t go too far as you only need to gag and not barf. This stimulates the vagal nerve too.
5. Coffee enemas: The caffeine and the rush of fluid into your lower bowel stimulates vagal tone as well. You can google that one if you want to learn how to do it as it’s not really my jam… It does work miracles, however, for those super SNS driven individuals.
Need I say more?
My personal favorite of these is tVNS and singing loudly, as well as getting 8 hours of deep quality sleep.
If you haven’t registered for my free program on “How to do tVNS”, I invite you to do so HERE as a gift from me to you. We can all use a little biohacking in our lives and this one, especially, makes a difference to me, at least….
If you are wondering how chronic stress has affected your gut, you can set up a complimentary consultation with me so we can chat about your health concerns and how I can ultimately help you using well studied and effective functional medicine tools. Feel free to schedule this call HERE.
Yours in Health,
Dr. Amy Denicke