How do you respond to stress? Perhaps you totally lose your appetite, or perhaps you can’t seem to find the ‘off’ switch when it comes to food. How about when you think of or do something which makes you nervous or excited - do you feel the flutter of butterflies in your stomach?
This connection isn’t some weird phenomena - it’s merely an example of the physiological bi-directional communication that our gastrointestinal system has with our brain (and vise versa). The simple thought of eating one of our favourite meals can get the gastric juices of our stomach flowing, just as an inflamed and irritated GI tract (from poor dietary choices for example) can disrupt communication to HQ heightening feelings of anxiety, sadness and depression.
This connection has been of interest to me for years now… and it’s been proved time and time again within my own practice that the two elements cannot be treated without the other being considered.
Numerous studies now demonstrate the impact that stress has on our GI tract as well as its ability to shape and change the types of bacteria residing within our intestine. These bacteria play a crucial role in supporting our immune health, converting food into energy, and in the production of hormones and neurotransmitters. Other than the impact on our bacteria, the inflammation caused by chronic, ongoing stress leads to inflammation within our body (including our brains) and essentially disrupts the communication pathways within our nervous system (including our neural pathways), therefore impacting our moods.
Just as stress can affect our gut, a poor diet can alter the way we feel or think. A diet rich in saturated fats, sugar, hydrogenated oils, and processed foods causes oxidative stress, dysbiosis and inflammation (just like stress does) - the only difference is that it happens from the inside out, rather than the outside in. In fact numerous studies have researched the link between patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and depression or anxiety, concluding that the likelihood of a person to suffer from anxiety/depression if they have IBS or vise versa is highly likely.
Approximately 10% of our global population suffers from IBS symptoms (bloating, flatulence, lower abdominal pain, fluctuating constipation/diarrhoea). The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry released an review which examined the prevalence of psychiatric disorders in patients with IBS. Of the patients who decided to seek treatment for their IBS, between 50% and 90% of them had psychiatric disorders including panic disorder, generalised anxiety, social phobia, post traumatic stress, obsessive compulsive disorder and depression.
The process goes both ways and is very, very closely interlinked. Whether it be a stressful situation or ongoing stress which causes the gut to react, or whether it be a physical interference within the digestive system affecting our psychological state, the need to address both elements at the one time are so important for effective treatment.
I have worked with over 30 women in the past 2 years who have specifically suffered from chronic stress, anxiety, and mild to severe depression who also presented with severe IBS symptoms. For some of these women there were significant life events/trauma which we could pinpoint as the start of a cascade of symptoms affecting the way their GI tract functioned. For others, a nervous or anxious tendency and/or lack of self-esteem contributed to years of ‘not caring’ for their bodies resulting in a highly toxic lifestyle.
If I have learned anything from these women and our time together, it is that a holistic approach to healing needs to be implemented in order to reach lasting results. A treatment plan needs to involve:
- Daily self love practices (a simple mantra, a hot bath, quiet time to oneself to read that book you bought 2 years ago)
- Daily self reflection (whether it be via thought, or through journal writing - have a method to reflect on how we act/react day by day)
- A personalised diet plan rich in fresh, plant-based foods, whole grains, quality protein and healthy fats - IBS and stress both lead to a depletion of minerals and nutrients within our bodies and therefore a lack of ‘fuel’ required to enable fundamental cellular processes
- A safe, non-judgement environment to ‘talk it out’
- A network of friends / family (even if that is only one or two people) who are supportive and understanding
- Daily movement of our bodies - a 30 minute walk, a spin class, a yoga session
- The ability to accept what is and what has been - for so many people I have worked with, the ‘letting go’ of expectations of the future, and/or the acceptance of things which have happened in the past, has finally allowed for growth and change - albeit being a very hard thing to do all the time, adopting a realistic understanding of the here and now and of what we actually can or can’t control can be one of the most powerful tools that we can adopt into our everyday lives
- Active practice of mindfulness and meditation where possible
- Integration of therapies across modalities/practitioners where necessary - whether they be functional doctors, psychologists, naturopaths, chiropractors or energy healers
And finally… slow, steady, consistent effort - everything takes time, but with daily effort I have seen women transform their lives and heal their bodies.
I feel that many of us forget to pay respect to the very thing that keeps us alive, so before you hit the pillow tonight, do me a favour and tell yourself how much you adore you. Put in the time and energy to nourish your body and mind, and in return, your body and mind will thank you back.
For those who need support - you are not alone:
Beyond Blue - 1300224636
Life Line - 131114
Words By: Nikki Heyder, Co-Director + Nutritional Therapist