Stress and the Sensitive Gut

Rest & Digest

FUNCTIONAL GASTROINTESTINAL DISORDERS affect 35% to 70% of people at some point in life, women more often than men, according to Harvard Health. When you take the time to enjoy a meal in a relaxed state, you will not only enhance the enjoyment of the meal but your metabolism and digestion will improve too. A few factors may contribute to this uncomfortable and often debilitating disorder, which could be psychological, social, or biological.

The “brain-gut axis” is what researchers study to understand better how psychological or social stress might cause digestive problems. This “axis” makes up three systems within the autonomic nervous system that keeps us alive – the sympathetic (fight or flight), parasympathetic (rest and relax), and the enteric system, also known as the second brain. What’s interesting about the enteric nervous system is it’s composed of neurons and neurotransmitters also found in the central nervous system of the brain and spinal cord. When the stress response is triggered, and the fight or flight response is activated, digestion stops, which may cause pain and discomfort. It can also work the other way – the pain can increase anxiety and stress for someone.

It’s possible to change your brain and body state easily under stressful conditions. In less than a minute, just through the conscious use of breath, your body can start relaxing. Relaxed breathing encourages the parasympathetic nervous system to activate the rest and relax response. Breathing is one of the most powerful conscious influences on our nervous system – it works like a switch in the brain to help us relax and turn on our full digestive capacities.

Try this practice and let me know how you feel in the comments below:

A Practice

Breathe in through your nose

  • Let your abdomen expand fully to the count of 5.

Breathe out through your mouth

  • Exhale completely to the count of 8.

Notice the sensations

  • Bring awareness to each inhalation and exhalation.

Proceed with the task

  • Slowly and with full deliberation.

Engage your senses fully

  • Notice each sight, touch, and sound and savor every sensation.

Give this practice a try whenever you start to feel a sense of stress or overwhelm. It will recalibrate your nervous system and help your body reconnect to a sense of calmness.

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