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Unravelling GI Problems – Stress

I believe in working to achieve real healing. A client’s level of health is a direct result of their lifestyle, so when a part of that lifestyle does not support health it must be addressed and changed to produce a different result.

The treatment process is a removal of symptoms and any good practitioner is capable of that. A practitioner does the coaching but the client must do the hard work of actively making the changes needed. In fact, real healing is the self-care a person consciously does on spiritual, mental, emotional and physical levels.

Removing pain is only half the process. Finding the causes and correctly addressing them is the other half. If that work is not done, return visits to the doctor or practitioner are inevitable.

Wellness through education teaches us that to achieve different results we must change our behaviour. Since all diseases are ‘dis-eases’ of lifestyle, lifestyle modifications are necessary. With that in mind, when I talk to a client about gastrointestinal issues, the questions I ask go far beyond those that just relate to the digestive symptoms.


Stress levels

One of today’s key areas to get clear information and client understanding of is stress - how it affects health and how best to create better responses for the individual.

Stress is a specific response by the body to a stimulus, such as fear or pain, that disturbs or interferes with normal physiological equilibrium.

Acute stress is the stress your body was designed to handle. For example, if you have a near miss in a car; you perceive a threat, your body responds and you hit the brakes, the car squeals to a halt, your palms sweat, you tremble and you can hear your heart pounding. Nobody got hurt, but you feel shaken up for a few minutes.

In acute stress your body thinks you’re in immediate, life-threatening danger and prioritises its resources accordingly. Therefore, to support you physically, it directs as much energy as it can towards your muscles and reflexes and releases cortisol, which suppresses the immune function, digestion and everything else that your body can temporarily put on hold. This is flight or fight mode, which is a normal response and helps us survive.

After an incident where you have experienced an acute stress response you will generally relax, take the time to recover and continue with your day as the threat is no longer present.

However, today’s problems arise because modern day stress is not acute, it is chronic. Where acute stress is high-intensity for the short term, chronic stress is low-intensity but long-term. The problem is that our nervous system was designed mainly to face short-term stressors like hunting for food or fleeing predators.

The type of stress we experience today is more chronic in nature, preventing our bodies from returning to their default parasympathetic mode that facilitates proper digestion and healing. As a consequence, we never achieve full recovery and the body thinks it’s under constant threat. As it’s permanently stressed, it creates further loads that will have a detrimental effect on many physiological systems in the body.


Lifestyle stressors

What might be some of your modern day chronic stressors? A few common examples include:

  • Lack of sleep,

  • Poor food choices,

  • Use of stimulants,

  • Pulling an all-nighter or continually pushing through a day despite being tired,

  • Eating gluten or other foods that you are reactive to,

  • An overbearing employer,

  • Electromagnetic stress,

  • Watching the news,

  • Family demands,

  • Being a perfectionist,

  • Staying in no-win situations for too long,

  • Working out too much or not moving enough.

Life in general can be a contributing factor when you don’t take enough ‘Me’ time or utilise regular stress relieving practices.

Unfortunately, being chronically stressed creates an ongoing low-level dominance in the sympathetic side of your autonomic nervous system. This means you are not optimally utilising your parasympathetic side which supports your repair and recovery ability. Your entire digestive capacity will be affected, from inadequate food breakdown, absorption, toxin removal to constipation.

Being chronically stressed will cause energy challenges and sleep disturbances, leading to general poor mood and anxiety issues.

Stress comes in so many varieties and forms that it’s impossible to avoid altogether. So it’s a good idea to identify the forms that you can control in your life and work on diet and lifestyle modifications to support and reduce the stress-load on your system.

You are more likely to have the following digestive problems if you are chronically stressed:

  • Problems with stomach acid levels, bile production and digestive-enzyme secretion,

  • Nutrient deficiencies and dehydration,

  • Abdominal pain and bloating,

  • Diarrhoea or constipation,

  • Acid reflux,

  • Nausea or vomiting,

  • Carbohydrate intolerance (fructose, lactose, sugar, starch),

  • Increased intestinal permeability (leaky gut),

  • Gastrointestinal disorders (celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, and other inflammatory bowel disorders),

  • Constipation and irregular bowel movements.

Be present at mealtimes

So one of the key places to start if you have digestive challenges is how you approach a meal and the environment and conditions at that time - how relaxed versus how stressed are you when eating (sympathetic versus parasympathetic).

Are you present with your food or are you distracted, are you relaxed or do you feel rushed?

To have healthy digestion you need to have a good cephalic response with each meal. It is estimated that as much as 30 to 40% of the total digestive response to any meal is due to the cephalic phase.

What is cephalic phase response?

The sight, smell and thought of food stimulates the cerebral cortex to send a message to the hypothalamus and then the medulla oblongata. This tells your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), via the vagus nerve, to signal the gastric glands in the wall of your stomach to secrete gastric juice. Further information is then sent via the hormonal and nervous system, which creates an ongoing beneficial effect in your digestive system.

Unfortunately, because of our poor lifestyle choices, we don’t activate and optimise our cephalic response very frequently. As we tend to be preoccupied and busy being stressed, we’re not present with the food which, if eaten in an optimal situation and way gives us many health benefits.

When you aren't paying attention to the food before you begin to eat, you are not fully aware of what and when you are eating. You are not provoking the full beneficial digestive response, and therefore you create the likelihood of causing the aforementioned problems.

To create a good cephalic response, and therefore good digestion, you should be mindful and present with your food. Think about, smell and look at your food before eating and create a calm, quiet environment to eat in, therefore stimulating the PNS side of your ANS.

Do not multitask while you eat, focus entirely on your food. Avoid computers, phones and any negative input, for example, the news. Chew each mouthful of food to liquid, therefore taking your time and effectively breaking down the food before you swallow. Limit your fluid intake too to avoid diluting digestive juices.

Stress results in the body prioritising other systems. When the digestive system is shut down, fewer digestive enzymes are released and less hydrochloric acid is secreted to aid in the breakdown of carbohydrates, fats, and protein.

Without, hydrochloric acid the nutrients cannot effectively be broken down, liberated, or absorbed. When this happens regularly, a person will experience far-reaching effects on their body, for example increased intestinal permeability, poor health, pathogen overgrowth, nutrient insufficiency.


Managing stress

As well as improving your digestion, it’s also important to manage your daily stress levels in general, not just when eating. A few tips to help avoid unnecessary stress:

  • Learn to say “no”,

  • Reduce your interaction with electromagnetics- i.e. phones, iPad etc,

  • Avoid people who stress you out,

  • Aim to sleep for a solid 8 hours each night

  • Turn off the news / avoid newspapers, especially when you are eating,

  • Control your to-do list

Emma will be teaching her popular Gut course Holistic Approaches to a Fully Functional Gut in London on the 15-16th of June 2019. The two-day course gives in-depth information on the far-reaching effects that gut function and dysfunction can have on the whole body. You will learn proven, natural and effective approaches to diagnosis and healing of the digestive system. For further information please visit

EMMA LANE, ND, Dip NT, CMTA, C.H.E.K IV, HLC3, PEA, RSA, has more than 29 years’ experience in the industry, working as a naturopath, naturopathic nutritionist and functional medicine practitioner. Emma has two busy practices in the north of England and central London, where she consults ​with clients and is also the founder and director of Integrative Health Education and PCI Europe (Parasite Testing). Emma regularly lectures around the world and is passionate about sharing her knowledge with other practitioners, and the general public.

Emma is also the founder of Holistics Online, which is an online store supplying practitioners and the general public with high quality ethically sourced nutritional supplements. The website is

Emma is presenting at the Complementary Health Professional Annual Conference on the 26th October 2019.

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