How does stress affect digestion?

However good your diet is for you, you will not digest your food when you are under stress and your stress hormones, adrenalin and cortisol, are on a surge.When life is stressful digestion will be impaired.

Stress hormones – what do they do?

From a Chinese medicine perspective, cortisol and adrenalin are relatively Yang, this means they create a lot of heat, movement, stimulation and dryness in our bodies, eventually thinning us out and depleting our tissues.

The stress hormones are our survival hormones. Our body priorities stress hormones because it prioritizes survival over reproduction and over digestion of food. When adrenalin and cortisol come up, they reallocate our energy to our extremities, to our muscles, making us stronger and faster while our heart rate goes up to make this possible. The flow of blood and nutrients to our skeletal tissue and senses is at the expense of our digestive system and reproductive system.

When the tiger is jumping from behind the bushes, it’s no time for sitting down to eat a good meal neither is it a time for foreplay… both libido and appetite will become suppressed under a condition of intense stress, and to some extent this will occur also under chronic stress conditions which is a big part of life for so many today.

While under immediate stress, both adrenalin and cortisol rise. Adrenalin will naturally go down once the immediate danger has passed, while cortisol levels stay high for a couple of days, diminishing gradually, to keep you alert and sharp in case danger is back again.

This elevated cortisol level keeps you anxious and stressed during out the day, keeping your nervous system alert, making you respond to normal and safe situations with a sense of threat and danger. Repeated situations which are perceived by you as stressful jump start again and again your stress hormones in a vicious cycle.

The sex hormones: Testosterone, Estrogen and Progesterone

Testosterone is the main male sex hormone and is considered more Yang (stimulating), while Estrogen and Progesterone are the main female sex hormones and are considered more Yin (calming, nourishing).

All 3 hormones are present in both women and men, though testosterone is much more dominant in males while estrogen and progesterone in females.

When women have good Yin, meaning estrogen & progesterone are not suppressed by stress hormones which come to show by getting enough rest, enough nourishment, enough grounding, then this Yin will enable activity, libido, exercise, doing a project or creating something. If stress hormones take over, Yin will gradually diminish cumulating in exhaustion.

Testosterone is mostly Yang, although it also has a building quality to it which is Yin.  The Yang aspect of testosterone is stimulating and activating, driving to conquer, change, doand act. However, there is also a mass building quality to testosterone; men go to the gym and build muscle mass. Testosterone builds mass through activity, it nourishes through action, which is exactly the opposite from what happens with women, which need rest to build tissue.

Rest and guilt versus activity

Women arrive to activity through rest, while men arrive to rest through activity. Men get rejuvenated by action. Women get rejuvenated by rest; they need to rest until the natural inclination towards activity comes up. Women have a guilt response towards rest, when they are hungry or thirsty they realize they should eat and drink something nourishing but when they feel tired they think “hay, what’s wrong with me?”

Women feel embarrassed to rest. Or may think something is terribly wrong with them if they need to rest. Women are not resting as much as they need and that weakens their ability to digest. Culture today is in love with activity and the more masculine qualities, ambition and drive, and we are almost embarrassed of the Yin qualities, rest, nourishment and letting go. It is the Yin qualities in life that give us a better chance at digesting food.

Stress and weight gain

Sex hormones for women are nourishing, building and calming. Stress hormones are motivating stimulating, lightening, drying, and breaking down tissue in the body. So why do women under stress gain weight? How is stress making us heavy? This happens when stress is chronic. Long term high stress, causing high levels of adrenalin and cortisol for too long first depletes adrenal function, second the insulin secreting part of the pancreas and third the thyroid gland. That ends up wearing down the endocrine system.

Adrenal exhaustion is notable by experiencing fatigue, “tired to the bones”, which does not significantly improve with rest or sleep.

Pancreas exhaustion is responsible for weight gain, especially around the middle section of the abdomen. People with excess fat around their waist may try to shrug that extra layer by more training and less food, putting their bodies into more stress, which is the cause for the problem to begin with. Just relaxing and taking a step backwards from intense training and dieting by resting and eating nourishing foods, to bring the stress hormones down, can unexpectedly show real improvement in weight loss around the waist.

The thyroid gland responses to stress by first going into subclinical or clinical hyperactivity, and as stress and demand for thyroid hormones continue, the gland “burns” itself and crashes into hypothyroidism. The root cause for both hyper and hypo conditions are the same, which is excess drive and stress for too long. So the treatment for both thyroid conditions is very much the same.

What is stress anyway?

Stress and activeness does not necessarily mean one is physically training all day, rather it is an inner sense of pressure, of having endless tasks to take care of and that nothing is getting done… trying to fit in family, friends, work, hobbies, sports, community involvement and you name it.

Reducing stress is a huge subject! But in relation to what’s been said here, reducing stress involves the ability to be honest with your-self. What is truly important for you? Are you managing your life to satisfy someone else expectations? Is your idea of success and self-value connected to reality? Sorting out your priorities and having the courage to act upon or retreat from any of the endless daily tasks and commitments, so you feel accurate and fulfillment with your time and energy, has the potential to bring stress levels down.

Digestive health is a long shot without living integrity. Trapped in a life you don’t want to be living will take over most of your resources to cope with mental and emotional stagnation, while depriving your core.


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