Is Your Stomach Churning? You May Have ‘Gut Stress’

Your stress response can wreck havoc on your guts
man with stomach pain

If you’re experiencing bloating, pain or constipation, chances are you’re feeling stress — either as a cause, a result, or both.

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It’s understandable. Maybe of us are experiencing an unprecedented amount of stress right now. With coronavirus causing isolation, job losses and more, it’s difficult to know how to process all of the stress.

We all process stress differently. However stress affects you, internalizing it can lead to chronic health problems like heart disease, hypertension, obesity and depression, says wellness coach and internal medicine specialist Michael Roizen, MD.

He says learning to change your response to stressful events can dramatically improve your health and well-being.

What happens when you’re stressed out

  • Your gut bacteria changes. Bad bacteria start to flourish, and good bacteria begin to die off. This changes the way foods you eat are digested.
  •  Your gut gets leakier. When you eat processed foods, some of the molecules escape from your intestine into your immune-processing pathways, increasing inflammation and other problems.
  • Your mood changes. Your gut produces even more of the mood-lifting chemical serotonin than your brain. But stress cuts its production, leaving you feeling uneasy and at risk of depression.
  • Your “fight, flight or freeze” switch stays on. Diverting all your energy to your muscles helped in prehistoric times: When you saw the woolly mammoth coming, you could quickly run away, hit him on the nose and knock him out, or play dead. After the mammoth moved on, you could relax. Chronic stress keeps your “emergency button” on all the time. Your digestion remains altered, causing bloating, cramps, diarrhea and constipation.

How to develop a new stress response

“Many of us respond to stress in a dysfunctional way,” Dr. Roizen notes. “We hope the problem, or stressor, will go away, then treat ourselves to ice cream, simple sugars and carbs, or red meat,” he says. But sweet foods or foods with lecithin, cholines and carnitine will change good gut bacteria to bad, increasing your gut distress and causing a vicious cycle response, he says.

Or maybe you deal with stress in other dysfunctional ways, like shopping, drinking or gambling in order to soothe yourself. Then you have a bigger stress response afterward.

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“Handling stress in a functional way begins with the awareness that you’re under stress. Then you can deal with stress in a few different ways,” says Dr. Roizen.

1. Solve the problem

If financial problems are stressing you out, you can set up a budget that helps you make ends meet. Or you can cut up that problem credit card. Then arrange to have your 401K contribution auto-deducted from your paycheck.

If a relationship is difficult but necessary, figure out how to ease the tension. Seek counseling if necessary, for a marriage or family member. Or if it’s a coworker, maybe learn ways to go along with a joke (laughter is a great stress-reliever). Or include a third colleague or friend in your encounters. If the relationship is personal, find a passion you both share to enjoy.

2. Refocus your mind

When a stressful situation is unavoidable (and many of them are), you can breathe deeply or meditate through it.

For example, if someone cuts you off in traffic, rather than getting mad, focus your attention on deep breathing in your car. Or you can work out, take a bath, enjoy a walk or do some gardening to calm down. Whatever works for you.

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3. Eliminate the stressor

If Uncle Joe always drives you crazy at Thanksgiving or another holiday, make holiday plans with good friends instead, or just avoid Uncle Joe. If you’ve overcommitted yourself to volunteering or to social activities, try cutting back.

The bottom line

Your stress response can wreck havoc on your guts. But if you learn to reframe your responses to stress, it can have a dramatic impact on your health.

“Challenges are part of life,” says Dr. Roizen. “And life’s challenges keep you stimulated, engaged and passionate about who you are and what you do.”

It’s not about living stress-free. It’s about changing your response to stressful situations.

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