A Functional Approach to Stress & Gut Health

It’s hard to look past stress as an initial focal point in any health issues. Stress has the double-edged ability to be both the triggering event and the mediating factor for health ailments. On one hand, traumatic events such as a divorce, bereavement, or infection can be the trigger that alters our biochemistry in a way that leads to ill-health. However, on the other hand, in today’s hustle and bustle way of living it’s more likely that low-grade chronic stress is what is fundamentally changing the way our digestive system operates.

When it comes to digestive issues, 43% of the adult population have suffered from one at some point in their lives. That’s nearly 1 in 2 people who have had to deal with conditions such as constipation, diarrhoea, reflux, indigestion and flatulence, which goes to show just how common gut disorders are.

So, given how common they are, could it be that low-grade ongoing stress is a major contributing factor? In Functional Medicine, it’s important to note that chronic health issues are often very complex and a deeper understanding of how the body works and functions as a whole system is vital.

Let’s start with our nervous system, which is our body’s main messenger to carry information between cells and organs. The nervous system has two parts, the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) and the peripheral nervous system (all the nerves of the body). Within the peripheral nervous system lies the autonomic nervous system which controls key bodily functions such as breathing, heartbeat, blood circulation, urination and digestion. It’s called the autonomic nervous system because it works automatically, meaning no conscious effort is needed to make it function. The autonomic nervous system further branches off into the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, which is key to this conversation.
A major component of the parasympathetic nervous system is the vagus nerve, which is the longest nerve in the human body and connects the communication between the brain and the gut (kind of like the M1 motorway which runs north and south).
When activated, the vagus nerve is responsible for switching on this parasympathetic system which puts us into rest and digest mode. The opposite, the sympathetic nervous system puts us into a stressed fight or flight mode when activated.
When in sympathetic mode and always on alert, the brain will tell the gut to slow down motility (the movement of digested food) causing constipation, or it can also tell it to speed it up and cause diarrhoea.

And guess what’s a key factor in stimulating our sympathetic nervous system and down-regulating our parasympathetic? Chronic stress. Which demonstrates how gut issues can be directly impacted by stressful times and situations.
So what are the consequences of this? Besides the obvious pain, discomfort and inconvenience caused by these symptoms, in the case of constipation we run the risk of re-absorbing waste metabolites that should be excreted out in our faeces, or, in the presence of diarrhoea, our ability to absorb the nutrients from our food decreases.
The good news is, there are things we can do to help this. After ensuring that the basic practices of good gut health etiquette are being followed, such as getting adequate water and fibre intake, doing some form of exercise and achieving a reasonable amount of walking per day, we can then begin to investigate a bit deeper.

We may look into different types of fibre to help with constipation, for example fruits like mangoes and kiwis are both excellent sources of insoluble fibre which can help the movement of food through the digestive tract. Another aid is prokinetics, which are food-based items that have been shown to stimulate the gastrointestinal muscular contractions which push food along the gut. These include ginger and bitter herbs like gentian and dandelion root.

But chronic conditions like constipation cannot always be solved by adequate water, fibre and supplements. From a psychological perspective, and as detailed above, the link between emotional distress and constipation is clear and highlights that the body and the mind are truly connected. So working with Psychotherapists and Cognitive Behavioural Therapists is a useful pathway for patients to explore to assist with digestive and gut problems. Even lower abdominal bowel massages performed by an Osteopath can help alleviate constipation by clearing any potential obstructions. This range of practitioners who can help solve one issue is what makes the diversity of health practitioners at Until truly unique, given that the Until space embodies a deep holistic approach to health and wellness. Functional Medicine Practitioners, Psychotherapists and Osteopaths all have the ability to work alongside each other and treat similar issues, such as a digestion and gut problem, from a different perspective.

If good health is important to you, taking care of your gut is a must, and that extends beyond what you put in your mouth.