HOW STRESS AFFECTS IBS and what you can do about it
STRESS IS THE NUMBER-ONE CAUSE of dis-ease that leads to disease. IBS is one example of a dis-eased state. There aren’t a lot of studies that support stress as a causal factor to IBS, but I have personally found a relationship. The more I practice meditation and yoga, the more I can tolerate foods I am sensitive to.
In 1892, Osler coined the term “mucous colitis,” and he believed there was a psychological component.
Understanding How Our Bodies React to Stress
We have two autonomic nervous systems that kick in without any conscious input from the brain: the sympathetic nervous system (the fight-or-flight response) and the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest-and-digest functions).
This primitive part of our nervous system cannot tell the difference between a mental and a physical stressor. Its reaction is the same: to prepare your body for fight or flight. But if your stressor is due to work or an argument with a loved one, the primitive brain’s fight-or-flight response is disproportional to the threat of the stressor.
When under stress, your blood flows out of the internal organs and into the arms and legs. This rerouting of energy and blood gives you extra strength and endurance, and decreases the amount of blood loss from your organs you would experience if you were to be wounded (because the blood has been diverted elsewhere). The autonomic nervous system controls all of this automatically; you don’t even think about it. You simply focus all of your attention on surviving the threatening stressor.
Seeing How Stress Affects the Digestive System
When you are under chronic stress, you derail your digestive system. Prolonged stress leads to prolonged diminished blood supply because the fight-or-flight response has diverted blood away from your internal organs. Organs don’t fair too well when starved of blood supply.
When your digestive organs don’t receive sufficient blood, their ability to digest and absorb nutrients is reduced. Your digestive organs require nutrients from your blood to make the digestive juices to digest the food in your gut.
Additionally, your body struggles to transfer nutrients from the food in your intestines to your blood when the blood supply is diminished.
Only when you are resting does your blood redirect fully to your core, supplying your digestive organs.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of resting and digesting.
Having IBS is stressful, which can compound the problem. Feeling stressed about your IBS just aggravates the condition, so it becomes an endless cycle. Learning to relax despite stressful situations helps break the potentially viciously endless cycle of stressing about the symptoms that are worsened by stress.
RELAXATION TECHNIQUES FOR STRESS REDUCTION
STRESS NEGATIVELY AFFECTS OUR HEALTH on all counts, including our digestion. To combat the negative effects of stress, you have to learn to relax.
Relaxation is difficult in our culture for several reasons. We are all overstimulated! During our waking hours, we are bombarded with unnatural light (which messes with our sleep cycle); unnatural sounds (which are amplified by speakers and earphone blasting straight into our eardrums); potent smells (such as perfumes, colognes, deodorants); and expectations and demands at school or work.
So how can we relax despite all of this?
Try taking a moment to focus on breathing out twice as long as you breathe in. If you can maintain this breathing pattern for more than five minutes, you should feel the tension in melt away tension. This technique is used in meditation practices.
Tense and Relax
If you are not relaxing with a breathing technique alone, focus on relaxing different body parts one at a time.
I recommend doing this relaxation exercise while lying on your back so you can work toward relaxing all of your muscles. You can also do this seated or standing, but that limits how many muscles you can truly relax because some will have to remain contracted to hold you upright.
Most people find it is easier to tense (contract) a muscle than to relax it; so to relax your whole body, start by tensing your toes and then relaxing them.
After you’ve tensed and relaxed your toes, move your attention up to the calf muscles. Tense them, then relax them. Move up to your thigh muscles. Contract the front thigh muscles, then relax them. Then contract the back thigh muscles and relax them. Move up to the pelvic bowel, do a kegel, and then relax.
Move to the muscles in your lower back, and contract and relax the lower back muscles. Continue up the back, contracting and relaxing as you go. Move down the arms, all the way to the fingertips, contracting and relaxing the muscles as you go. Return to the shoulders, and contract and relax the individual muscles.
Move up the neck, contract the muscles in the back of the neck, and relax. Contract the muscles in the front of the neck, and relax.
Even contract and relax your facial muscles, tongue, muscles of the jaw (open and close your mouth), and muscles of the eyes (look far left, far right, up, and down). By the time you reach your forehead (raise and lower your eyebrows), your whole body should be relaxed.
Relax with Yoga
Yoga helps me relax, and it might help you too. Doing yoga is like doing meditation in motion. Plus, several of the poses I do involve inversions (being upside down). Inversions assist with the movement of fecal material that normally has to work against gravity.
When you’re upside down, gravity works with the ascending colon instead of against it. (More on this in Chapter 25.) So it can’t hurt to take pressure off the ascending colon, especially because the appendix is at the bottom of it. Having the abdomen upside down helps the appendix drain too.
Regardless, taking the time to relax and rest and digest will positively affect the health of your digestive system.
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