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Stress and Indigestion

In one of my recent posts, I discussed the role of emotional dysfunction in any chronic condition. One such condition is indigestion or maldigestion. Bloating and excessive painful gas or even GERD (acid reflux) after meals is not only uncomfortable but abnormal. Unfortunately, for too many of us, this situation is the norm. We become accustomed to treating it with antacid or acid blockers. Even though these medications may alleviate symptoms the real issue can be too little acid in our stomachs not too much. I have had clients who are on acid blockers (PPI’s) and when they are still experiencing symptoms, they find a spoonful of vinegar alleviates the pain. I then point out to them that the medication they are taking is preventing acid production in their stomach and the vinegar is putting acid back in their stomach. I ask, “Why take the PPI?”

Why is acid production reduced in the first place? The answer is stress. When we are experiencing stress, our sympathetic nervous system is activated. This is our survival mode: fight, flight or even freeze. Have you noticed that some people, when faced with an uncomfortable situation, shut down and do not respond? They freeze. This is not a state of relaxation but of panic and we are focusing on survival. This state is very intense and places many demands on the body. So much that the body must make some decisions about priorities because it has a finite number of resources. In order to conserve energy and resources, the body will shut down higher-ordered thinking, parts of the immune system, and even digestion. In this state, the body is more concerned with avoiding that saber-toothed tiger and not becoming his next meal. The body says, relatively speaking, “I will digest this food later when I am out of danger.”

The problem with our modern-day fight or flight situations is that the saber-tooth tiger never seems to go lay down and take a nap. He is always lurking and so our body never gets the signal that it can turn on our digestive system again. The result is that the food in our stomach is not fully broken down by hydrochloric acid and pepsin, etc. The stomach, pancreas, and liver stop producing much of the acids and enzymes we need to break down our food. Instead of being digested the food begins to ferment in our stomach and causes bloating. When pressure builds in the stomach, our esophageal sphincter instead of acting like a stopper to keep chime (the mash of chewed food, acid, and enzymes) in the stomach, acts as a pressure relief valve. The chime is catapulted up into the tender and fragile cells that line our esophagus causing damage.

Not only are the stomach, liver, and pancreas impacted in stressful situations, but the intestines as well. Between meals, the intestines propel the chime mixed with bacteria and other waste products on its journey to the large intestines. This migration is disrupted during flight or flight. The food then begins to ferment too early causing more bloating and indigestion leading to constipation. The body may also choose to flush the intestines with extra water to remove the chime. In this case, diarrhea occurs instead of constipation. There are several reasons why this may happen and requires more investigation. The result in either scenario remains the same. The body is not relaxed and not breaking down food and absorbing the necessary nutrition to maintain health.

It is important to understand the reasons we are anxious and how to more appropriately address what is bothering us to promote relaxation. Once we relax, the digestive systems will begin to function again. In these situations, I encourage clients to take a few moments before eating to focus to calm the body. Be aware of feelings or thoughts that would disrupt digestion and plan to address them. We can also support digestion with some vinegar and digestive bitters or certain greens, pancreatic enzymes or even bile salts can be helpful. As we begin to let go of our fears and focus on the areas of our life that we do have control over, our bodies relax, and the digestive system reengages. If you are experiencing digestive issues, or have any other health concerns, call me for a free consult today!

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