The enteric nervous system, or the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, is often referred to as the “second brain.” Much like your brain, the GI tract relies on the same type of neurons and neurotransmitters to complete specific functions, as well as maintain communication with the central nervous system. Have you ever noticed that fluctuations in your emotions cause a reaction in your stomach? You may feel butterflies with love, nausea with anxiety or gut-wrenched with fear. This is because the brain has a direct effect on the GI system.
This also means that when you are experiencing stress - chronic stress or ongoing tension from small daily stressors - your gastrointestinal health is impacted. Psychological stress can impair contraction of the GI tract, induce inflammation and increase susceptibility to infection.
The GI tract/brain connection is so intense that research has shown that patients who seek therapy for stress and mental anxiety see a reduction in GI symptoms. And, the reverse has been shown: changes to your diet, such as eliminating foods you may be sensitive to, can improve your mood and energy.
How do you know if it’s stress?
Chronic upset stomach, irritable bowels and other unpleasant symptoms of the digestive system are the gut’s natural reaction to stress. To minimize the damage to your mental and physical health, you need to identify the source of your discomfort and when it began.
Then, try these strategies for reducing stress:
• Meditation. Try quiet meditation exercises, join a yoga class or simply find a quiet time and space, even if it’s just a relaxing bubble bath. Be sure to take quiet time for yourself weekly.
• Journal. Sometimes you just need a space to “let it all out.” The pages of a diary can be a great way to rid yourself of stress and free your mind and body from what is bothering you.
• Make a list. Sometimes managing stress is as simple as writing down and prioritizing what needs to be done.
• Therapy. Talking to a trusted advisor or professional counselor can help ease stress.
How do you know if it’s your diet?
If the stress in your life seems to be under control, yet you are still suffering from moodiness, feelings of anxiety or lack of energy, it may be related to food sensitivities. Food sensitivities are different from food allergies in that the reaction is not as severe and often does not manifest for up to three days. Processed foods, gluten, dairy, peanuts, alcohol, soy, sugar and artificial sweeteners are the top culprits of GI discomforts and diet-related mental anguish.
To determine the source of your GI distress and related symptoms, try an elimination diet. Develop a healthy eating plan that eliminates toxic food items over the course of three to four weeks. This should sufficiently rid your body of the harmful effects each food may be having on your GI tract.
After the completion of the 21 to 28 day period, begin adding back each food item one at a time, observing for discrepancies in your mental and physical state. Reactions may include – but are not limited to –mental fogginess, fatigue, depression, abdominal cramping, upset stomach, bloating, diarrhea, constipation or acne. If effects are not observed after one week, the added food item is a safe part of your food intake, and you should choose the next food on the list to add back to your diet. If effects are observed, discontinue consumption of that food item – you have recognized your sensitivity to that food.
At the completion of the elimination diet, you can devise a balanced diet eliminating the foods that cause you distress. You will find that removing these foods from your diet improves your energy, weight management, mental clarity, GI function and even sleep.