Written by: Kevin Cann
Proper digestion is often an overlooked piece of any health/weight loss program. We throw around the terms “nutrient dense diet” regularly, but what good is eating a nutrient dense diet if we are not able to break down and absorb those key nutrients? Now, I believe that everyone can benefit from a little bit of digestive support. Digestive enzymes can be found in any health food store for a very reasonable cost. However, there are other areas in our life that need to be looked at an addressed to truly maximize our digestion.
One key area we need to look at is our stress management. Gastrointestinal disorders are on the rise. Statistics estimate that the number of American people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is between 10% and 15% of the population. Add to this the number of people that suffer from gastroesophogeal reflux disease (GERD), and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and we have a real epidemic on our hands. Not to mention the increasing rates of people suffering from nutrient deficiencies.
Our chronic stress levels can be a culprit in all of these issues. Many of us have probably suffered from this first hand. Ever had a big presentation in front of a large audience, or had a big game, and suddenly got the feeling that you were about to soil your pants? This would be a stress induced reaction.
One of the body’s largest nerves, the vagus nerve, stretches from the brain to the bottom of your abdomen contacting almost all of your major organs including your heart. The vagus nerve communicates messages to and from the brain and the abdomen. Messages are passed from two types of neurons, afferent and efferent.
Afferent neurons carry messages to the central nervous system (CNS) and efferent neurons carry messages from the CNS to receptors located throughout the body. In a nutshell our “gut feelings” are just afferent neurons being passed to our brains.
These neurons also send messages that prepare us for a fight or flight response (sympathetic), or a rest and digest response (parasympathetic). The key phrase being rest and digest. We need to initiate a parasympathetic nervous system response to maximize our digestion. If we are constantly under a sympathetic nervous system response this hinders digestion, as our body does not care about assimilating nutrients for later if it has to survive now.
Our nervous system utilizes inhibitory neurotransmitters such as GABA to put the brakes on the sympathetic nervous system and initiate a response to the parasympathetic nervous system. GABA is located throughout our GI tract and plays a role in intestinal motility, gastric emptying, gastric acid secretion, and may even inhibit GI cancerous tumor growth (1).
Another key neurotransmitter that is found in the gut is serotonin. Serotonin helps us buffer stress, and when levels are low we suffer from anxiety and depression. In fact, roughly 95% of the body’s serotonin is found in the bowels. Dysfunctional serotonin levels have also been shown to cause gastrointestinal disorders (2).
Serotonin helps us to buffer stress. If we are chronically under stress our body will continually need to release serotonin. Cells can be desensitized to serotonin much the same way they can become desensitized to insulin in the development of type 2 diabetes. We will need more and more serotonin to get the same response, and over time the system becomes weak and we suffer from the symptoms of low serotonin. The dysfunction of these neurotransmitters may explain why so many people with gastrointestinal disorders suffer from mood disorders (3).
Our neurotransmitters are not the only things negatively affected by our stress. Studies have also suggested that stress affects our intestinal permeability and blood flow (4). This increase in intestinal permeability may be due to stress literally changing our gut microbiome for the worst (5).
This allows undigested food particles to slip through the cracks, creating an inflammatory response. This low grade chronic inflammation is in itself a stressor, so the hole continues to get bigger. This may be one reason that once someone develops a food intolerance they begin to develop intolerances to more and more foods until they are left with only a handful of things that they can eat without reacting to them.
A key part to healing both gastrointestinal disorders as well as mood disorders is to heal the gut. I like the GAPS diet protocol for this alongside some heavy doses of probiotics. However, this does not get to the root cause of the problem. Our inability to shut off our sympathetic nervous system is the problem. If we do not address this we will never truly reach the quality of health we are striving for.
This makes active stress management an important part of everyone’s health plan. This can include meditation, deep breathing exercises, and listening to calming music. Magnesium naturally elicits a response from the parasympathetic nervous system and taking an Epson salt bath after a long day can help.
It is also important that we eat our meals in a relaxing environment. This does not mean in our cars on the way to work. We need to sit in a calm environment, take our time while eating, and truly enjoy the experience. Remember we need to rest and digest.
We should also try to limit the amount of chronic stress we are under on a day to day basis. Some stuff is unavoidable, but limiting our light exposure at night as well as limiting the amount of environmental toxins we are around can help. You will be surprised how much this can help how good we fell, as well as our digestion. It also can’t hurt to take some digestive enzymes with your meals too.
If you suffer from any type of gastrointestinal distress or poor mood following the implementation of a paleo diet, do not lose hope. Our stress levels can play a major role in the success of a good diet. If we are constantly in a state of fight or flight we can never truly optimize our digestion. Begin to implement some active stress management techniques and limit the stressors that you can on a day to day basis and see if this improves your gut health. You may even lose a few more pounds too!