Gut health is not only important for digestion but is also a cornerstone of overall health. It is so important for production of serotonin—our “happy hormone”—and can even be thought of as a second brain because it communicates through millions of nerve cells found in the gut . It should come as no surprise that stress plays a huge role in how well our gut functions. After all, who hasn’t experienced that feeling of “butterflies” before a big presentation or felt viscerally sick when under immense stress?
The gut is also essential in immune function: it is one of the first lines of defense we have against disease. We can easily connect the dots of stress to gut dysfunction, disruption of the immune system, and the rise in immune diseases. Surprisingly, the gut contains more neurons than the brain and is only partially controlled by the brain itself. While it is influenced by the brain – communicating through the vagus nerve – the gut primarily operates automatically. The vagus nerve is also in command of the parasympathetic nervous system, helping us breathe and maintain steady cardiac function. “Rest and digest” is a phrase that stems from the way the vagus nerve can calm the body, diverting secretions and blood flow in the gut to aid in digestion.
When emotionally stressed, the gut simply does not function the way that it should. Practically speaking, this means that eating the newest probiotic-rich yogurt , taking the newest supplement, and following that new fad diet could result in thousands of dollars going down the metaphorical drain. Perhaps one of the most disturbing approaches to gut health is focusing on supplementation rather than starting with our “emotional diet”. Many people do not realize that stress-related hormones wreak havoc on our bodies, and especially our gut.
Our thoughts, emotions, and state of mind have a profound impact on the function of the gut. Per the “fight or flight” stress response, when we are experiencing negative emotions or are in stressful situations, our sympathetic nervous system puts our body into overdrive to prepare for potential danger. This diverts energy and blood supply away from the gut (thereby away from processing foods) to be utilized for the more pressing needs of the moment.
It’s important to realize (and remember) that a normal functioning gut is the key to good physical and emotional health. Focusing on eating the right foods is a good start, but controlling stress is arguably more important. Individuals who have learned to regulate their state of mind, maintain a calm and positive attitude, and go through their days in a mindful manner are better able to control stress (and make better food choices), thereby experiencing healthier outcomes when it comes to nutrient absorption and overall digestion. The human body is not unlike a car: when stressed, the gas is applied to make everything go faster (the “fight or flight” response of the sympathetic nervous system). When calmed, the brakes are applied and things slow down and become more balanced (the “rest and digest” response of the parasympathetic nervous system).
By Dr Bal Pawa, B Pharm, MD
Westcoast Women’s Clinic