Could your digestive symptoms be mostly due to stress, rather than food?
More and more research is coming out to demonstrate the impact of mental health on digestion, although this concept is not new. The first official probiotic treatment for depression was implemented in 1910!
So how does this work?
The gut has its own nervous system, the enteric nervous system, and it communicates with the brain via the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the longest nerve stemming from the brain, and this nerve is connected to several parts of the gut.
The function of the vagus nerve extends far beyond the gut, but this is what I’ll focus on for this article.
The vagus nerve promotes contractions to move food through the GI tract and stimulates secretion of gastric juices to digest food. It also stimulates appetite and regulates mood.
When you are stressed, anxious or depressed, this puts the body into sympathetic nervous system dominance – the ‘flight or fight’ response. This response essentially shuts off the vagus nerve from carrying out it’s normal role in digestion.
So how do we care for this vagus nerve to improve digestion?
The answer is to relax! This allows the body to activate the parasympathetic arm of the nervous system, also called the ‘rest and digest’ state. Obviously this is ideal for when you are eating, but more importantly, it allows the vagus nerve to properly regulate appetite, stimulate GI tract contractions and release gastric juices to break down the food.
Relaxing is far easier said than done, but if you eat from a more relaxed place it stimulates the vagus nerve and improves digestion, which reduces bloating, pain, gas, reflux and stomach upsets.
Here are some ways to relax and improve your digestion:
- Mindful eating – focus on the food, bring it to the forefront of your mind to signal to the brain that we are eating now. Avoid technology and other distractions during meals
- Sing! Yes, really – it’s such a stress reliever. Bonus points if you dance too. Put on some music and dance around the kitchen in the mornings, no one has to know 😉
- Smile and laugh as much as possible. How can you find the joy in the little things? Or maybe you can get some laughs out of hilarious memes, I certainly do!
- Do some nice breath-based activities like yoga, qi gong or meditation, and bring awareness to the way you breathe generally. Deep belly breathing is the fastest way to relive stress.
- Acupuncture can also be really helpful to get healthy energy flowing, and improve digestion.
Give these a try, and let me know if it works!