How Stress Affects The Digestive System

Can stress cause IBS?

Even with all of my years of education, knowledge and practice, I didn't acknowledge until I slowed down in my life that my ongoing digestive symptoms including the feeling of a lump in the back of my throat after eating, pain in my upper left abdomen and irregular bowel movements were related to chronic stress and high functioning anxiety. This really all started after an intense case of influenza and a bacterial infection at the same time which completely immobilised me for over a week and took at least a month to really recover from, followed by food poisoning not once but twice in a period of just over a week in Thailand. Five years on and still no answers after doing all the investigations including comprehensive stool analysis, breath tests, endoscopy and colonoscopy... all normal.... I implemented an array of Naturopathic treatments, dietary changes and special diets... Allll the things - still the symptoms went on with no resolution.

Then I came to a point in my life where I intuitively felt that I had to slow down. It was like a tidal wave of emotions after living in constant, continual stress pretty much ever since I can remember. Coming from a fairly traumatic childhood and rebelling in my teens, to almost losing my Mum to cancer in my mid-20's, studying two different degrees at University over an 8 year period in conjunction with working full time for the most part of that (meaning getting up at 4am to study on week days and spending almost all of every weekend on the computer and not having any time for fun or relaxation), starting and growing a couple of businesses, moving house every 2-3 years, building, selling and buying homes... And all the things in between.... All the while feeling mountain symptoms of anxiety but at the same time putting on this brave face, acting like a strong independent woman that could 'do it all'. I didn't want anyone to know that I was struggling because I had a BS belief that I had to be the one to hold everything together.

I was unable to sit still, always had to be doing something productive or would feel bad, wanted to do everything myself, always had tight muscles, clenched my jaw, started waking up multiple times through the night, had random chest pain, struggled to concentrate, and was always sweating even when it was cold. I was irritable a lot of the time, a worrier that always felt like my life was out of control and I had this feeling that bad things were going to happen and therefore always feeling a strong desire to plan and organise everything ahead of time. I would feel energetically wiped out from having to leave the house for a few hours preferring to stay at home a lot of the time. During my years at Uni I put so much pressure on myself and was so hard on myself while waiting for my assessments to be graded. I'd wait around telling myself that my work was terrible and I was going to get a bad grade, even though almost every assessment would receive shining feedback and grades. Basically I was permanently stuck in the stress response. Tiny things would cause me to escalate into unhelpful emotional states.

And so how does all of this affect digestion and cause symptoms of 'IBS' you ask? Here's the nerdy version:

I'm sure you've heard of the term 'fight or flight'? This is the stress response symptom and it is what happens when we are exposed to a(any) stressor. The brain responds to the stressor by sending a signal to the adrenal glands, which respond with release of epinephrine that flows through the body and binds to the surface of cells and then the liver converts glycogen (storage form of glucose) back to glucose so that it can be used as energy to 'fight or flight'. The glucose and epinephrine surging through the body speeding up breathing (which becomes shallow and can cause anxiety) and this is followed by increased heart rate.

While all of this is going on, digestion is not a priority - staying alive is the priority. When you are in the stress response, your body doesn't know the difference between being stalked by a Lion or being yelled at by your boss or being late for work because you're stuck in traffic or just simply feeling overwhelmed because you have to much on your plate. And so when you eat and you are chronically stressed, you are unable to digest your food very well because your digestive processes are disturbed. This leads to chronic digestive symptoms that are blanket diagnosed by medical doctors as 'IBS'.

When is the last time your GP asked you to rate your stress levels on a scale of 1 - 10, or got you to fill out a stress questionnaire? If i'm right, the answer is probably never. AND, if they have asked and you gave them an honest answer you probably walked out of their office with a prescription for anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medication? But these don't address the fact that you are stuck in the stress response. So digestion continues to stagnate, and your symptoms go on and on and on.

When I finally came to the turning point where I knew that I had to slow down, my symptoms gradually started to resolve over time. I noticed when I was feeling relaxed and calm, my symptoms would not be there and at times when I was feeling increased stress they would reappear. With something so simple as allowing myself the time and space to sit down and enjoy eating and not be on my computer or phone at the same time I had noticeable improvements, as well as not jumping up as soon as I had eaten rushing off to do the next thing and the next thing.

Offloading 'things' from your life, not taking on as much, meditating first thing in the morning, not putting as much pressure on yourself to be productive during every waking hour, actively being aware of your mental state and pivoting when your mind is running rampage with negative thoughts, taking individualised herbal medicines and energetic flower essence prescriptions, mindful eating... all of things things paired together form a part of a holistic treatment plan to address chronic stress that is causing IBS symptoms. So if you are chronically stressed and you have IBS symptoms I welcome you to book an appointment with me and let me guide you to transform your stress, anxiety, overwhelm and IBS too feeling rested, relaxed, calm and symptom free. We will explore history, genetics (which affect mental health and behaviour) and lifestyle factors to get you feeling better than you have felt in years (or ever)!