How does our body react to stress?
The stress response is formally known as the sympathetic response, or more affectionately as the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. This is a rapid mobilization of the body’s resources to parts of the body that are most critical to fighting off the lion preparing to attack the camp or potentially fleeing the scene if the risk is too great. More nutrients are driven to the heart so it can pump blood quicker. The blood vessels in our limbs and non-essential areas start to constrict while blood vessels in organs such as the heart, brain, lungs, and skeletal muscles dilate to allow a greater blood supply. Our airways start to open up to allow for copious oxygen intake, an important function if we need to run or fight.
What happens to the digestive system when we are stressed?
In addition to the processes just named, the stress response also inhibits reproductive, urinary, and digestive functions. It would be very unfortunate if you lost your battle to the tiger because you got distracted by a sudden need to go to the bathroom…or mate for that matter! These are distractions in the heat of the moment.
What kind of digestive symptoms might we experience?
Inflammation of the gut is the most common symptom, so it may come as no surprise that many individuals with inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s Disease or Ulcerative Colitis report that stress increases the severity and duration of symptoms such as rectal bleeding and the potential for relapse if they’re in remission.
Since digestion is inhibited, the normal motions of the gut that move things along are almost shut down which can lead to gas, bloating, constipation, and weight gain. Stomach acid may also make its way up into the esophagus leading to heartburn.
How has stress evolved from the time of our ancestors?
Hunter-gatherer societies were quite straightforward in their roles and day-to-day tasks. With an explosion in human population, ingenuity and innovation, civilization rapidly progressed. Suddenly we were experiencing other forms of stress:
- Financial – how am I going to make my next payment? Can I really afford that? How much do I have left for food this month?
- Relationship – are they being faithful? Do they want the same thing I want? Why can’t they put a coaster under their mug?
- Work – am I doing a good job? Will I ever get that raise or promotion? Is this what I really saw myself doing for the rest of my life?
For some, worrying about meeting basic needs like food and shelter are still a day-to-day struggle, and for many they’re not. So now humans find other stressors, and with humans quickly becoming a global community where you can see what individuals are doing every minute, the need to have the ‘perfect life’ introduces even more stress – what am I doing wrong? Why am I not on vacation? How can they afford that and I can’t?
How does this affect me in the long-term?
The ‘stress hormone’ is known as cortisol, and while humans experience an increase in it during a stressful event, the body has a counteracting mechanism. Known formally as the parasympathetic response, affectionately as the ‘rest-and-digest’ response, the body brings the blood vessels back to normal, slows your breathing, calms the mind, and decreases cortisol levels. If the stress response becomes chronically activated, the cortisol doesn’t drop and can lead to our immune system becoming weakened and therefore becoming ill more often.
Are there different forms of stress?
Yes! Much of our experience comes from how we interpret the event. János Hugo Bruno (Hans) Selye was a Hungarian-Canadian endocrinologist, often considered the father of stress research, once stated, “It is not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it”.
- Eustress - this is considered to be positive, challenging stress that energizes the individual. We often feel somewhat in control of the situation and believe that we can influence the outcome.
- Distress – this is considered to be unpleasant and harmful stress that can deplete your energy. We perceive these stressors as outside of our control which leads to a sense of helplessness.
This is a lot to take in, how can I keep myself calm?
As Mr. Hans Selye mentioned, our reaction to the stressor is the lynchpin of the matter. Developing resilience is a major factor in managing your health. Resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, we can think of it like the ability of an elastic band to spring back into its original shape. If an individual tends to dwell on an event or repeat a discussion they had with their boss over and over again, then the body remains in a chronic state of stress with elevated cortisol levels.
Developing healthy coping strategies is key to returning to a healthy state of mind…and although delicious, four glasses of red wine a night is not a healthy method. Strategies could include meditation, reading, and socializing among others. In a study on college students, those who practiced mindfulness-based stress reduction spent less time ruminating on what they have done wrong or life stresses, demonstrated an increase in forgiveness, and a reduction in stress.
Some herbal help could increase resilience and decrease stress…plus who doesn’t want some quality sleep?
Feeling anxious about an event or individual can cause any stressor to feel that much worse. Studies have also shown that the more stressful life events you experience, the greater the risk for developing elevated anxiety sensitivity. Herbs such as Passion flower (Passiflora incarnata) have been shown to be as effective as oxazepam, a commonly prescribed anti-anxiety medication. By reducing the impact of anxiety and stress, the individual can improve their resilience and potentially decrease the severity and/or duration of their digestive symptoms. Passion flower can be found in a tincture form which is added to water and drank. This herb also improves the quality of your sleep by keeping individuals in the deeper stages and improves how quickly the individual falls asleep.
What about symptomatic relief?
For the gastrointestinal issues, one could try something like boldo (Peumus boldus), a powerful herb that focuses its effects on the liver.
The liver is responsible for synthesizing various proteins and bile salts, as well as filtering blood coming from the digestive tract. These proteins help transport substances around the body, and as any large company knows, shipping is critical to the function of a global enterprise. Bile salts act on fats to turn them into smaller and smaller droplets which can then be processed by the body more effectively. Without the filtration of blood, harmful substances might also be able to enter the body.
Boldo can help the liver perform these functions more effectively, and may decrease digestive symptoms despite elevated stress. Products such as a Digestive Aid Complex contain bold in addition to three other digestive herbs, dandelion, milk thistle, and artichoke. Speak to your primary care provider and seek healthy coping mechanisms.