Probably, many a school student has already noticed a link between bowel symptoms and stress with the dash to the toilet on an exam morning. It is well established that many bowel symptoms are deeply connected with what is happening in the mind. The following seeks to explain, in a simplied version, just how much the brain and the gut chatter together on a daily basis.
As discussed in an earlier blog post, our stress response is triggered by external or internal/perceived threats. It is also worth noting that stress is not always accompanied by an obvious emotional sensation such as fear or anxiety, which is why chronic stress can go almost undetected by an individual. This stress response releases chemical messengers, which affect various systems in the body, but particularly the gut. The brain and gut are also connected directly by a neural network, which can send messages in both directions (the brain-gut-axis).
The resulting effects of the chemical and neurological 'conversations' between the brain and the gut is to decrease blood flow to the gastrointestinal areas, decrease normal stomach emptying time and increase colon (lower bowel) emptying time. Symptoms individuals can experience are both constipation & diarrhoea, bloating, abdominal pains, excess acid and urgency. One particular syndrome, which is diagnosed by excluding other problems (as there is no direct test) is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). This is well known to be worsened by stress, such that sufferers seem to have a hypersensitised bowel response to stress. A similar occurrence happens in PTSD and early childhood stress seems to particularly predispose a person, later in life, to have a IBS.
It is also worth making a brief mention here about microbiomes. These are collections of microbes or micro-organisms, inhabiting a particular environment. We all have our own individually developed and changing microbiomes in our gut. There is currently a lot of research looking into how microbiomes interplay with our physical and mental health and how much does the genetic material of the bacteria we live with integrate with our own overall genetic make up? Are our gut bacteria sending messages to our brain? If so, this is where diet and what else the gut is exposed to, come into influence. Further research is looking at this.
So if you are struggling to manage bowel symptoms and your doctor has excluded other issues, it is well worth considering how much is STRESS causing or exacerbating your problems.
If you think you are chronically stressed, then finding ways to reduce stress is worth making a priority.
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