The article below is a guest post from Michelle White who is a Gut Focused & Embodied Psychotherapist and she specializes in optimizing digestive health by helping with the stress and emotional triggers - whether you are aware they are present or not.
This is not my specialty, I focus on stool tests like the GI Map and SIBO testing to identify the underlying triggers behind digestive issues, but some people need more than this. If you are someone who has done all of the right things to fix your digestion but are still having issues then this is something to consider.
Over to you Michelle
Does Stress Affect Our Entire Body?
Your gut is biologically designed to be affected by stress.
We know that stress affects the heart. This evidence is widely known and accepted. If you’re diagnosed with a heart condition, your doctor or specialist is addressing the role of stress with you, along with other lifestyle factors.
What you might not yet know is that your heart is part of your autonomic nervous system. Put simply, it functions autonomously and automatically without any cognitive effort from you. You don’t need to move through your day reminding your heart to beat.
The other two organs of your autonomic nervous system are your lungs and gastrointestinal tract. they also don’t need any cognitive input from you to function. When you’re unconscious, your heart, lungs, and digestive tract still work. Impressive really.
What Happens to the Body During a Fight or Flight Response?
The fight or flight response is activated when there is a threat to your survival. Your sympathetic nervous system kicks in to save your life by orchestrating a sequence of instantaneous hormonal responses in the body so you can fight or flight.
Let’s say you were living thousands of years ago in a tribe. A lion approaches your camp, which is, of course, a major threat to your survival. Within a millisecond, your amygdala reacts to the threat and activates your sympathetic nervous system to immediately pump stress hormones (adrenaline, cortisol, norepinephrine) into your body.
It’s doing this to increase your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate so it can pump blood and oxygen to your arms and legs as fast as possible to prepare you to fight or flight.
If you’ve ever had an adrenaline response like this, you would remember your heart racing, you’re breathing fast and shallow, and a feeling of incredible energy (adrenaline).
Pretty darn clever.
But your body is even more clever than this.
It says: " I need as many resources as possible to save your life so I’m going to borrow blood flow from other parts of the body that don’t need to be functioning right now during a lifesaving event, and the largest organ with the next most blood flow is your digestive tract."
Digesting yesterday’s lunch is not important right now, and to borrow the blood flow from it, your nervous system needs to activate one of two things; empty the contents of the digestive tract immediately (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea) or shut the digestive tract down completely (constipation).
How Does Stress Affect Your Digestive Health?
So, we can see that your body is biologically designed to be affected by stress. Your body is doing what it’s meant to do. Everything is intact, it’s functioning precisely how it was designed. That’s something to be proud and appreciative of; throughout evolution, your body is still doing this to protect you. Unfortunately, this amount of stress is also having an effect on the integrity of your gut lining, your microbiome, your overall hormones, and other systems in your body.
Why is it still reacting the same way now when there are no lions? Because life is stressful with pandemics and financial stress and not enough hours in the day, so it’s perceiving these as threats and reacting in the same way.
How to Manage Your Stress to Improve Digestive Health?
How do we reduce stress so your digestive health is no longer affected? We attend to the causes of stress by going to the source. Once the circumstances in your life are no longer perceived as a threat, your body will stop reacting that way.
It’s the same concept as you are already embarking on around your physical health. Modern medicine aims to mask the symptoms, but you are seeking to know and resolve the underlying cause to bring your body back into a state of wellbeing.
If you experience heightened distress of any sort - anxiety, stress, depression, an inability to slow down, then this must also be attended to. Otherwise, the stress will continue to have an effect on your physiology and can either prolong or prevent your recovery to full health.
Your body is a whole system and each of those systems speaks to the other. We can’t separate the body from our mind or emotions from the body. If I ask you to think about the person you love the most in the world, or your pet, or the happiest day of your life, you are likely to feel a positive emotional response in your body; tenderness, warmth, happiness, joy.
That’s how connected your body is to your mind. Your mind creates the environment for your body, and you can absolutely determine the quality of that environment. Sounds hard, yes, and that’s why I’m here, to make it simple. It’s absolutely doable.
Gut-focused therapy with Happy Inside is unique in comparison to standard counseling or psychology because when you have physical symptoms related to stress, you must include the body in the resolution of the stress otherwise it can remain stuck in the body. This means talk therapy on its own is not enough.
Life is hard and you are doing the very best you can to get by, and these physical symptoms are likely making that more difficult. You’re not alone, there are so many others across the world having this experience too, and the lucky ones like you are exposed to this knowledge through incredible practitioners that care for you as a whole person. This is the very best model of care there is, and you deserve the absolute best.