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When Stress Flows, Digestion Doesn't

Written by Meghan Rhodes MCPP MAPA

I've touched on this in a previous article, but given digestive issues are one of the most common health challenges I get asked about, I thought this topic warranted its own discussion.

fresh peppermint leaves with an amber glass bottle

Digestion takes up quite a bit of our body's energy. Think about it - you've got multiple organs and enzymes breaking down your meal (and the extra difficult job of doing so if it's processed food - or an 'edible food-like substance', as Michael Pollan calls it, or if the food has been coated in pesticides or other chemicals, which our bodies are not designed to break down). The nutrients extracted from what you ate then need to get carried throughout the body to where they're needed and anything not needed has to make its way down and out, ideally in a calm, orderly fashion.

Now, what happens when you are under stress? Physical stress, mental or emotional stress, need to meet a deadline at work stress, haven't had a good night's sleep in ages and your toddler just keeps on toddling stress, too much social media scrolling stress - it doesn't matter. Whether you've got a sabre-toothed tiger coming after you or you're worried about what your social group thinks of you, the body responds to them all in the same way. Depending on the situation and your personality, you'll go into a fight, flight, freeze or fawn response.

What all of these responses have in common is the energy in your body is diverted to survival, rather than nourishment.

To give a rather extreme example, if an animal lower down on the food chain (e.g. an antelope) is giving birth in the wild and a predator (e.g. a lioness) approaches, her body will stop giving birth, pull the mid-birth baby back into her body, and she will run until she is somewhere safe. That's the extent to which mammalian bodies - ourselves included - will go to prioritise survival in circumstances of stress. (So you can bet processing lunch is going to be put on hold, as well.)

Now, many of us have heard about how the state of society today is sadly one that is constantly inflicting stressors on us from all angles. Acute stress is one thing, but constantly being in that state is another. It is not natural - it doesn't give our bodies time to restore equilibrium, to regain balance, and indeed to digest our food properly.

And so there's often a lot of discussion about things you can do to help your digestion - from prebiotics and probiotics (food-based, encapsulated and powdered), to restoring and protecting a damaged gut lining (bone broth and herbs can definitely help here), to eating organic real foods in a balanced diet. All of these things are beneficial and often necessary as part of the process of restoring balance in the digestive system.

However, if you don't address the root of your digestive upsets, your gut microbiome will keep getting thrown off, or your gut lining will keep getting inflamed or damaged, or you'll get pulled towards processed 'comfort foods', and so on.

The root cause varies from person to person, but a common theme I often see is stress. Stress tells the body - there's something more urgent to deal with, so divert energy away from digesting food. Stress tells the body - my gut microbiome is stuck in a chicken and egg scenario where happy hormones like serotonin aren't able to be produced, so I feel overwhelmed and tense and sad, so unfriendly microbiota are able to flourish. Stress tells the body - feed me something to dull the senses so I'm not so overwhelmed like heavy carbs, fats and sugars.

So you end up in a scenario where your body doesn't have the energy to process the food you're eating, it can't get energy-giving nutrients disseminated throughout the body, your gut can't produce the various hormones that help you feel relaxed and happy, and then you're craving foods that are more waste product that nutrition, which your body can't excrete.

I've known clients who experienced a traumatic event develop incredible difficulty having bowel movements, resulting in straining and painful fissures or haemorrhoids. I've known clients going through challenging terminations of relationships who experienced painful bloating and constipation. I've known clients so exhausted, they're stuck in cycles of biscuits and coffee just to get enough of a temporary energy fix to get through the day and then spend the night with terrible sleep.

And so we come back to the maxim, 'When stress flows, digestion doesn't'.

Whilst there are plenty of herbs that can help relieve the symptoms of a stuck digestion - bloating, wind, cramping, stomach spasms, constipation, poor nutrient absorption - and which can certainly be used, if you're feeling like stress is at the root of your tummy troubles, what herbs can be supportive to help get you out of fight, flight, fawn or freeze and back to functioning and flourishing?

Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) - A true panacea herb. It's incredibly calming for the nervous system, which is why it has a reputation for being a 'sleepy time' herb. But chamomile is a lot more nuanced than just 'helping you get to sleep'. It relaxes the nervous system, telling the body it's ok to shift out of hypervigilant mode and back into gentle functioning. It's bitter, so it stimulates bile flow in the liver, getting the digestive juices flowing, but also reinforcing messages sent across the nervous system to the brain that tell the whole body 'we're ready to focus on digestion now'. It's also prebiotic and probiotic, so it encourages a healthy gut microbiome. Finally, chamomile is cooling to inflammation in the body and mind - especially those irritated, agitated, anxious, fearful thoughts that can get stuck going round on the hamster wheel in our heads. *N.B. As chamomile is such a popular herb, it is unfortunately mass-produced and heavily sprayed with pesticides, so always be sure to buy organic chamomile or grow your own. I grow chamomile from seeds I get from Jekka's, and they are unlike any other chamomile I've tasted - honeyed in fragrance with potent bitter principles, which mean it's going to do what you need it to do. Earthsong Seeds also do a high quality chamomile. Although neither are currently certified organic, both produce their seeds to an incredibly high standard without pesticides, so they're as good as, if not better. As effective and multifaceted as chamomile is, it's also incredibly gentle, so can be used by anyone at any age - from newborns to elders - unless they're one of the few who is allergic to it, which is fairly rare.

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) - A proper 'part the clouds so the sun can shine through' herb, lemon balm is delicious, tasty, gentle and effective. It works on both the gut and the mind, easing fear of failure, anxiety, depression, inability to sleep and self-deprecating thoughts, as well as nervous headaches and palpitations from stress. Lemon balm is also particularly adept at relieving spasm, so those anxious, cramping, uncomfortable butterflies in your stomach that make digestion painful - lemon balm is perfect for that. It's prolific in the garden and makes a lovely tea, so if you want to grow your own for optimum freshness, put it in its own bed or pot. Again, Jekka's and Earthsong both do high quality seeds. Lemon balm is one of the herbs I include in my sweet, calming Full Bloom Glycerite, as well as in my No Need to Panic tea, available in The Members' Apothecary.

California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica) - The classic 'chill out' herb. California poppy just dials all those tied in a knot thoughts in the mind down a few notches, so you can untangle yourself from the stress of being stressed and focus on what is and what you can or can't do about it. It's perfect for people who have hot, fiery personalities with a tendency to be self-critical, often those who are highly driven and who set themselves high goals in high-pressure environments. If this sounds like you and you're constantly in an adrenalised state heading towards burn out with a gut that's tied in knots, grabbing food on the go between meetings, california poppy is the herb for you. I blend it with other herbs that help you destress and decompress in my Inner Calm tincture blend, available to members of my Members' Apothecary.

Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica) - In Ayurveda, it is said all disease starts in the mind, and gotu kola is specific for what is called 'toxins in the mind'. That can be anything from negative self-thoughts to feeling like everyone is out to get you to absorbing the overwhelm of media and news saying the world is in a downward spiral. It's the 'glasses we wear' - sometimes they're rose-tinted and sometimes they're dark and obscure your clear vision of the world. And if we can't get those dark glasses off our eyes and we continually absorb that negativity, our bodies go on high alert - they enter a state of stress, and then the cascade begins. So have a look in the mirror and check what glasses you're wearing. If they're dark and stormy and you need help taking them off, gotu kola could be a great help. It's often taken as a powder, either mixed into food, included in a tea blend, mixed with honey to make a sweet paste or encapsulated. Detox Trading stock organic gotu kola powder in various quantities for reasonable prices.

So when you digestion feels backed up, bunged up or uncomfortable, check in with your body. Is stress flowing? If so, consider some of the herbs mentioned above.

And if it's something more complex you can't seem to get on top of on your own, work with a practitioner of your choice to get support in getting better.

Allow your body to receive the nutrients it needs - don't let stress keep you from thriving.

*It is important to note, if you experience blood in your stools, stools resembling coffee grounds, sudden significant weight loss or onset of intense pain, seek medical attention immediately to rule out potentially very serious illness that requires urgent care.

*Links provided are personal recommendations from my own experience as a qualified herbalist. They are not paid advertisements or official endorsements.


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