How Stress & Anxiety May Be Behind Your Poor Digestion...or Vice Versa
I spent years and years of my life living with a stomach ache. I was always worried about what I was going to eat if I was at a party, and even would become anxious about going to the beach because what if I needed to use the bathroom? For years I felt like I couldn't trust my body's digestive system to do what it was supposed to do, and honestly I really couldn't tell you what it felt like to not have a stomach ache.
Even after discovering that I had really high lactose intolerance, and celiac disease, my stomach aches still didn't go away completely. I was still anxious all the time about what I could and could no eat, and even though I had more clarity on what had been causing my stomach aches, my deeply ingrained anxiety around food still caused unexplained issues with my digestion.
I had GI doctors diagnose me with IBS (which was not the case with me) and I started to think that maybe I just was meant to go through life with a stomach ache. For anyone who is reading this and may be feeling this exact same way let me tell you that you 100% do not need to go through life feeling this way. Our bodies are meant to feel incredible, and when we are feeling physical discomfort there is something going on that can be fixed!
While there are many many GI related issues such as SIBO, Candida, IBS, IBD, etc. that can be drastically improved and in many cases cured through dietary and supplemental interventions alone, in my opinion if you are someone who also struggled with stress and anxiety your GI issues will never fully go away without also addressing the stress, and/or depression/anxiety as well.
Here is why. So your GI track and your brain are super closely connected. This is why when you feel scared your stomach may hurt, or when you are nervous you may have a sudden urge to use the bathroom. Our brains and emotions have a direct impact on how our gut functions, which can be both a blessing and a curse. For instance, just the thought of eating something delicious can release digestive juices in the stomach needed to break down the food your gut anticipates getting. Additionally, serotonin, our brains happy neurotransmitter is primarily produced in the gut, meaning that when your gut isn't happy, most likely your brain isn't going to be happy either.
This gut-brain connection is so intertwined that sometimes it can be difficult to determine which piece is the problem, and which is the symptom. Anxiety that stems from poor stress management could be the real cause of IBS symptoms, OR an unhealthy gut could be the cause of the person's anxiety. Tricky right?!
This is why when I work with my GI health clients or mental health clients we always look at the entire picture, because in my mind trying to fix issues in the gut without also promoting healthy stress management and anxiety coping techniques will never truly get the client to a place where they feel symptom free.
Also lets be real for a second shall we, for anyone who has ever truly had chronic gut issues, you know that simply always having a stomach ache makes for a more anxious life. You worry about social events, you worry about bathroom access, you worry about drinking, you worry about meals you cant control, your life starts to revolve around your stomach which is a horrible horrible way to live. This was how I lived for way to long and thought I just couldn't fix, and if I can help others avoid some of that pain I will know that I have done something good.
For me it was simply learning how to cope better with my anxious feelings around food and how it was going to make me feel, adding a high-dose probiotics 2xday for six months, adding more fermented foods, learning that my body really doesn't love raw vegetables, including more yoga and less intense exercise into my life (stopping overexercising...but that is a story for another day), and drinking way way more water.
I now know that when I am stressed or anxious I need kind gentle exercise, lots of sleep, and very very simple meals. On days like this I will stick to soups, smoothies, scrambled eggs, and just more simple meals. I avoid lots of nuts, raw vegetables, and grains that my digestive system has a harder time handling to begin with and really doesn't tolerate well on these more stressful days.
Luckily overtime I really was able to cure my stomach issues, and today I can honestly say that I have gotten to a place where food no longer causes any anxiety (except certain times while traveling where it can pop-up) and my digestive system no longer causes me the pain and discomfort it once did. While I know that really learning how to eat for my body was a giant piece of this puzzle, the other piece that most people don't value enough is learning how to identify the role that stress and anxiety play in your life, and learning how to manage these feelings to promote a healthy mind and healthy gut.
If you have been nodding your head to this entire post and really are feeling overwhelmed or even hopeless when it comes to your stomach and GI related concerns, please please do not hesitate to reach out. I am happy to answer any questions and also would love to work with any of you individually to really help get you feeling better and to a place where your gut and brain work together as amazing partners as they are meant to.