I’m sure you’ve heard that stress can make you sick and affect your overall health, but do you ever wonder exactly how that happens? One of the main ways is that it affects our gut and our ability to digest nutrients from our foods.
Digestion, when all goes well, is basically the breaking down of food into important nutrients that is absorbed and used by the body. Our bodies use these nutrients to support immune function, to detoxify and eliminate toxins from the body, and to provide energy for daily life.
It would then make sense to get as many nutrients from our food to support normal bodily functions and overall good health. We all want more energy, right? Not only “you are what you eat”, but you are only what you’re able to digest. Unfortunately, for many, digestive ability declines with the aging process and is greatly inhibited when we are under stress.
Digestion starts in the mouth, where saliva and enzymes kick off the process. The food then travels through the esophagus and to the stomach, where the food is mixed with digestive “juices” that include enzymes, hydrochloric acid, electrolytes, and other compounds. From there, your organs such as the liver, pancreas, gallbladder, and the small and large intestine work together to further break down food into carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and vitamins. The toxins in the food are also eliminated at this point.
Carbohydrates are broken down into sugars, protein into amino acids, and fats into fatty acids and glycerol. Carbohydrates are either simple or complex, and come from fruits, grains, and starches.
Simple carbs (the ones I don’t recommend you eat much of) are broken down rather quickly in the body, raise blood sugar quickly, and supply quick energy. The body then pumps out insulin to drive that sugar out of the blood and into the cells. You might even notice a big drop in energy after that initial serge wears off and you’re left with a blood sugar crash. Unfortunately, these are not the best forms of carbs for you.
Complex carbs digest much more slowly, and in small amounts, can supply longer and more sustainable energy. Carbs are used for energy and the fibers are a good source of food for good bacteria in our gut. A healthy microbial balance is one very important way to support a healthy immune system.
Proteins are broken down, by the way of digestive enzymes, into amino acids. From there, they are absorbed through the small intestine into your bloodstream.
Our brain and gut are so interconnected that we just have to think about food in order to start the digestive juices flowing, and for our mouth to water. Because of this close connection, our gut is sensitive to our emotions—including stressful thoughts!
When we think stressful thoughts, a chemical reaction occurs, producing hormones that decreases the flow of oxygen and blood to our gut and severely inhibits digestion. This energy is sent to our extremities to prepare us to fight or run from the threat. It can cause inflammation, an imbalance in our gut bacteria, and make us more susceptible to gut disorders and acid reflux, for example.
The other issue you may notice as you age is that your mid-section may be expanding, or what’s called “the spare tire belly”. This can also be due to stress. The more you eat on the go, or under stressful situations, the less you are able to properly digest. When the body is in stress mode, it’s not focused on digesting. Stress can actually cause fat accumulation around the waist more so than general weight gain, which is actually more detrimental to overall health.
A Hormone called cortisol will supply your body with glucose for energy. In turn, cortisol will suppress insulin, glucose will remain elevated without the actual need, and fat will store around the midsection. This is also a perfect set up for insulin resistance and type II diabetes. Over time, elevated cortisol can lead to chronic inflammation and suppressed immune function.
Our immune system lies mostly in our gut by way of healthy bacterial cells. In fact, we have more bacterial cells than we have human cells. Our body’s ability to balance the good and bad bacteria within the body determines overall health. Stress and poor digestion can severely throw that balance off, and we end up with too much bad gut flora AND weight gain. Stress that goes unchecked, coupled with poor diet and impaired digestion, can lead to serious health issues and even chronic disease.
If you would like to learn more about how stress could be impacting your digestive system and overall health, contact the Feely Center today.