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  • Q&A with Australian Health Practitioners

    How does stress relate to the gut and immune system?

    When I am stressed I seem to get sick or get tummy problems like cramps or dihorea, how does stress relate to the gut and immune system?
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  • 1

    Thanks

    Jon Gamble

    Naturopath

    Jon is author of ‘Treatment of Irritable Bowel Syndrome’ and “Obstacles to Cure: Toxicity, Deficiency & Infection” - two books for CAM practitioners. He specialises … View Profile

    Stress always make IBS worse, but it is very seldom the CAUSE of IBS. Therefore stress management techniques can help IBS, yet most IBS sufferers report that their IBS goes with them when they go on holidays! So IBS is more than just stress.

  • 2

    Thanks

    Damien Haines

    Clinical Psychologist, Psychologist

    Damien Haines is a registered Clinical Psychologist who brings a warm and empathetic approach to therapy. He emphasises engagement in the world and encourages clients … View Profile

    Anxiety/Stress suppresses ones immune function. There are numerous studies that have demonstrated that those who have higher levels of anxiety develop more illness. A video called “Stress - Portrait of a Killer” reports on a number of these studies. Long term chronic stress has been linked to higher levels of cardiovascular disease, IBS as noted above, Type II Diabetes etc. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=eYG0ZuTv5rs).

    IBS is an interesting case as it is not a singular disorder, but really an diagnosis when nothing else fits, ie all else has been ruled out. For some it is largely psychological, others largely biological. However, it is almost never just anxiety or just biological. It requires careful investigation to understand how much of each is at play.

    What you are describing is possibly anxiety. When stressed your body goes into a fight/flight response. All systems needed to fight or flight are turned on, those that are not are turned off.

    Two of the systems that are turned off are the digestive system and the immune system. As a result when stressed people rarely feel like big meals, rather they would graze. They also tend to graze on highly palatable food (high salt, sugar, fat). These foods have been shown to reduce cortisol levels (at least in rats anyway - human studies are underway). Cortisol is a stress hormone, so if you eat Macca's (not an endorsement) your stress (Cortisol) levels drop. Chocolate works as well, better though are bananas.

    Maccas etc have poor nutrient content this can lead to poor bowel function.  Additionally, when the anxiety comes in waves the digestive system shuts down quickly which can create nausea - again making you not want to eat. If you haven't eaten for a while you feel nauseous -> so you don't eat -> haven't eaten for a while feel nauseous. A nasty self-fullfilling problem.

    Another part of the digestive system shutting down is either evacuation or a holding onto everything in your bowels. Most people have a combination of both.

    All of that is related to stress. Add medications and other lifestyle issues and the problem is often worse.

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