It’s important that we spend a little time talking about a Parasympathetic versus a Sympathetic state, and how this influences digestion. The human Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is responsible for regulating the body’s unconscious actions and is made up of three divisions: the Parasympathetic Nervous System, the Sympathetic Nervous System, and the Enteric Nervous System. The Parasympathetic Nervous system is often considered the “rest and digest” or “feed and breed” system, while the Sympathetic nervous System is the “fight or flight” system.

Historically, our ancestors lived life mostly in a relaxed (or parasympathetic state), and only experienced high stress (or a sympathetic state) when trying to survive danger or life threatening situations such as predator attacks. Things are much different today. As a culture, we are sympathetically stressed much of the time. Our stress is often long term and sustained. We live fast paced lives, experience job and financial stress, deal with illness, and spend a great deal of time in traffic jams. While we are no longer being chased by saber tooth tigers, our autonomic nervous system doesn’t always know the difference. Stress causes physiological changes to the body, such as increases to heart and respiration rates, blood pressure, muscle tension, and cholesterol levels.

Why is this important? In order for the digestive system to function optimally, we need to be in a parasympathetic state. Remember “rest and digest?” When in a calm and relaxed state, the body is able to produce saliva, utilize energy to break down food, urinate, defecate, and procreate. The Vagus nerve is heavily involved in maintaining a parasympathetic state, and is also the main line of communication between the gut and the brain. When in a sympathetic state, however; the body determines that it needs its precious energy for fighting or fleeing a dangerous situation. Blood is shunted away from the organs not necessary for immediate survival, and digestion is down regulated. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, you may experience symptoms such as heartburn/reflux, nausea, cramping, constipation, and ulcers. Stress is highly associated with gastrointestinal conditions such as IBS and IBD. Significant inflammation in the gut, as well as an imbalance of gut microbiota can result.

We have talked at length before about digestion being a north to south process, starting in the brain. This most northern point is where we have the ability to set the stage for the rest of the digestive process. It’s imperative that we take the time to relax while eating. This means taking slow deep breaths before you take a bite, sitting to eat rather than standing, and eating without distractions (e.g., eating at one’s desk while working or while driving, or even when watching television). It is when we are in this parasympathetic state, that the body is given permission to produce the stomach acid and digestive enzymes necessary for the breakdown of food. It’s also important to chew your food well. Taking a good 20-30 seconds to chew each bite plays a huge role in producing enough saliva to begin the breakdown of foods, as well as messaging the brain to signal the proper digestive processes downstream. Food that is not chewed also becomes fodder for dysbiosis within the gut. 

What are some additional things you can do to support the stress response?

1. Get Regular Exercise

Physical activity relieves tension and stimulates the release of chemicals in your brain called endorphins, which act as natural painkillers. Endorphins improve sleep, which can help relieve stress.

2. Consider Psychotherapy

A study published in 2017 in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology looked at the effectiveness of CBT on quality of life, anxiety, and depression in those with IBD. Patients with IBD who reported low quality of life were randomly assigned a CBT intervention along with standard medical care for three and a half months. When compared with a control group, people with IBD who received CBT reported higher quality of life and lower levels of depression & anxiety. 

3. Focus on Foods that Decrease Anxiety

Fatty fish, berries, nuts & seeds, fermented foods, and green tea have all ben show in research to boost your mood. 

4. Breath Work

Shallow, upper chest breathing is part of the typical stress response. By consciously breathing using the diaphragm, we can control the nervous system and encourages the body to relax. 

5. Vagus Nerve Exercises

In addition to the breath work and physical exercise I already mentioned, things such as cold exposure, massage, singing/humming, gargling, socializing, and laughing are all beneficial and simple ways to stimulate and strengthen the vagus nerve.

6. Implement a Daily Meditation/Mindfulness Practice

Research has long shown that those who participate in mindfulness based stress reduction strategies experience less stress, depression, and anxiety. 

7. Develop Time Management Skills

Know your deadlines, plan ahead, set goals, and avoid procrastination. This should help to reduce anxiety over the tasks you need to complete. 

If you or someone you love could use support with dietary modifications to support their mental and/or physical health, please reach out for a FREE discovery call today!

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