Stress & Digestion: Psychosomatic Factors in Digestive Disorders

If you’re one of my students for my online course Perfect Digestion, then the topic of psychosomatic illness is nothing new. In fact, it is a large focus in the course, considering that the number one cause of all digestive and gastrointestinal upset is stress – specifically, mental and emotional stress.

For those who are not familiar with the subject of psychosomatic illness, let’s first break a few things down…

In order to understand anything, we must first understand the words being used in a subject. Therefore, in order to really understand the stress-digestion or psychosomatic factors in digestive upset, it will be incredibly helpful to know what these words mean.

What is Psychosomatic Illness?

Psychosomatic illness refers to the phenomena whereby a physical illness or other physical condition caused or stimulated by a mental factor such as internal conflict or stress.

Refining this term even further, let us dissect word “psychosomatic”. The root pyscho stems from the word psyche, which means “spirit or mind”. That is why we often hear people who have gone “mental”, referred to as pyscho; their minds control them, they don’t control their minds.

Next, the root word somatic is derived from the Greek word, somatikos, which means “the body”.

So we find that the word psychosomatic, quite literally means, “mind-body”, and is a term used to reference the powerful connection between the mind and body – and as you will learn throughout this article, just how much influence the mind has on creating and animating the body.

What is Stress?

At basic, stress means to press. You will see the reoccurring root word ress, in many forms of stress, including press, impress, repress, depress, express, oppress and many others – all viable forms of stress. So you could say that stress, on the most anatomical level, is force, counter-force (two opposing forces, pressing together).

Most people hear the word stress and unconsciously reference it to mental or emotional stress. Mental or emotional stress would be a mental or emotional conflict (opposing ideas, thoughts, emotions etc). However, the basic meaning of stress (to press) does not pertain just to the psyche, but all of the laws of physics.

Stress or pressure, can occur where in the physical universe, and in fact, doesn’t actually have to apply to the metaphysical universe, it just seems we as individuals engage in it though unnecessary for being alive.

The Stress-Digest Connection

To understand the relationship between stress and digestion, is to understand the workings of the digestive system at the foundation. In short, the entire digestive process is ruled by the nervous system and is thereby interrupted by a stress response. Everything from the ingestion of food, propulsive peristalsis, inhibition of reflux, secretion, digestion (the breaking down of food), metabolism and elimination are controlled by a complex autonomous neurohumoral system, which is influenced by higher cortical impulses.

To put this n lamens terms, every aspect of digestion is ruled by the nervous system, specifically the enteric nervous system.

There are two basic branches of the autonomic nervous system; the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. I explain this in great detail in my online course. But essentially, when we are stressed the sympathetic nervous system is activated. The word sympathy means suffering, so when we are suffering (or in the illusion of suffering), stress hormones are secreted and digestion shuts off.

Therefore, the many variety of stressors in life can modulate the automatic impulses of digestion and cause unfavorable gastrointestinal reactions. These are referred to as psychophysiological reactions and involve accentuations, inhibition or distortion of the natural functioning of digestive organs.

An example of this phenomenon is fluctuation in bowel movements (irritable bowel syndrome) following a stressful event or thought. Stomach ulcers are another very old manifestation of psychosomatic digestive issues, where gastric acid is greatly increased by emotional stress.

While this knowledge is nothing knew and in fact traces back to ancient Greece, emerging research has confirmed that these psychosomatic reactions lead to actual morphological changes in digestive organs, which activate peptic ulcers, diarrhea, constipation, bloating and even ulcerative colitis. 1 2

What’s more is that these psychophysiological reactions are the early symptoms of more chronic digestive diseases, including irritable bowel syndrome, IBD, Crohn’s, and others, which are really nothing more than the result of a chronic, habitual mental and emotional state of stress or suffering (sympathetic).

Bacteria Respond to Your Hormones

So far we have covered how stress can cause ulcers and fluctuating bowel movements; however, the effects of stress on digestion do not stop there. The delicate lining of the gastrointestinal tract (were you absorb nutrients from food) can also be effected by stress.  Similar to how the stomach lining can become inflamed from hyperactivity caused by stress, the thin intestinal tissues can easily become irritated and inflamed, causing the phenomenon known as “leaky gut”.

Leaky gut is basically exactly that, a gut that is leaky. How it occurs is actually quite simple, but also fascinating. Basically, when we are in a chronic state of stress, the bacteria in our guts respond.

The thing to understand though is that hormones and neurotransmitters are chemical expressions of consciousness. In other words, the body uses them as a type of language to communicate throughout the body and perform tasks. The cells, organs, glands and bacteria in our bodies are capable of decoding these chemical messages.

Now, in the case that we are firing off chemicals with the message of “stress and suffering”, pathogenic bacteria (pathos means to suffer), will wake and perform the task in demand, which might not be what we necessarily want.

You see, pathogens are in the body for a reason, they are the garbage men, they take out the trash. In nature, they are the decomposers, they turn death into new life, they are critical for life. They also happen to be the bacteria that essential cause our physical decay and decompose the body. So, when we are in a state of suffering, we are (willingly or unwillingly) asking the pathogens in our bodies to decay the body. They are only doing their jobs by responding to our chronic stress and suffering so don’t be mad at them!

The thing to understand is that the bacteria in our bodies have evolved as the human body has evolved. In fact, our bodies are mostly bacteria. So, as our lifestyles, diets, environments have changed, they have too, so they are incredibly intelligent and quick to respond. And during a stress response, we are sending a cascade of stress hormones, telling the disease-causing bugs in the body to grow.

In other words, stress inverts the ration of probiotic bacteria to pathogens in the gut within moments. Yes that’s right, while you are concerned about what probiotic to take, what supplement and what food to eat to encourage your probiotic growth, they are quietly responding to your every thought. So, it sort of becomes futile to spend so much time, money and energy on probiotics, diet, etc. if we have not addressed the root causes of disease; our thoughts and emotions.

Therefore, the best thing we can do to improve our overall health, especially digestive function would be to properly manage our thoughts and considerations, which are creating the hormones in our body that either ensure health or cause disease.

Tips to Eliminate Stress

1. Cultivate MIND-LESS-NESS.

The number one way to minimize the fight-or-flight response in the body is to get rid of stress. Read that again, get rid of it. I didn’t say among stress. Manage means to handle and we don’t want to handle stress. Why handle stress? I understand handling your relationships, your work, your hobbies but why handle stress when you can just drop it?

In Taoism, the state of “no-mind” is to a high orderly state, it is to be without wild emotion and to be ruled by the mind. In TCM, the heart refers to the psyche or mind, it is the seat of emotion. When a person is in a state of no-heart, no-mind, they are in what is called Mushin. This is an enlightened state where you are not ruled by your mind or emotions, but the creator of them.

So the thing to understand here is that stress is perceived, it is not actual. As the Buddha said, “all suffering is the denial of existence”. In other words, if you take a real good look at the physical world, you’ll find most likely that you’re okay, you’re not dying, but your mind as tricked you.

Considering that chronic stress shuts down digestive function, the immune system, makes the gut leaky, and causes gut dysbiosis, it is highly important you begin to master your perception of life and instead of seeing it through the lens of your reactive, mis-emotional view point, that you can begin to see life as-is, without the sob story.

This obviously takes a lot of work, it is a discipline, so I suggest you begin. I offer coaching in this realm, so if you are interested, send me a message.

2. Never Eat When Stressed.

Plain and simple, only eat in a relaxing environment in a relaxed mental state. Actually, making an effort to improve your overall environment for serene meal time can have a major positive impact on your digestion. I suggest eating outside, amongst nature.

3. Take Digestive Enzymes.

If you;ve truly masters your mind, everything beyond tip 1 is not very important. However, while you are in process, these things might be very helpful (they were for me).

I highly suggest the use of enzymes to improve the digestive fire and ensure maximum breaking down of food and assimilation. They will also help you avoid heartburn, constipation, and bloating. The use of quality enzymes will ensure full digestion in the stomach and small intestine, which will help give your adrenals the nutrients they need to help you resist stress to begin with.

Out of all the supplements I’ve researched and worked with over the past 15 years, my favorites are by Body Ecology. You can get those here. 

4. Consume Probiotic Foods & Drinks

If you’re going to eat, you might as well eat smart. Of the many delicious, healing and traditional foods, fermented foods are some of the best. Most traditional cultures use some form of fermented food, so most body types enjoy them. By simply eating fermented foods every day, you’re not only eating a traditional food that your body will recognize, you’re also going to support the immune system, enhance digestion (they are rich in enzymes too), and heal a leaky gut.

If you’re interested in taking probiotic foods daily, I suggest learning how to make them, which is the most cost effective, sustainable and fun! You can take an online fermentation course here.

5. Heal the Adrenals 

Your nerves system rules the digestive system, so you want to ensure a strong HPA-axis and endocrine glands. Now again, keep in mind that it is kind of foolish to be chronically stressed and not getting a handle on your stress, but also trying to support the adrenals. It’s like pouring gasoline and water on a fire at the same time, not sure how well that will work out.

However, in the case that you have greatly eliminated most of your stress, then I suggest feeding those adrenals the things they need like amino acids and bio-available B vitamins (found in grass-fed red meat and fermented spirulina, and also fulvic acid. I would suggest doing this regardless, that way at least on a biological level your body is more equipped to handle stressful situations.

6. Try Adaptogen Herbs 

At the very least, if you do nothing else (which i do not recommend) you can start supplementing with adaptogen herbs. Adaptogens basically hep your endocrine glands biologically adapt to stress more efficiency. Some of the best adaptogens include Gyostemma, Holy Basil, Ashwagandha, He Shou Wu, and Reishi.

Healing Psychosomatic Illness

In my 12 years of coaching, psychosomatic factors (mental and emotional stress) is hands down thee cause of most digestive problems. Moving beyond these emotional triggers requires a great deal of work on the psyche and cannot be resolved by diet, supplements or physical therapy, considering the cause is not in the physical domain, but the metaphysical (mind and emotions).

There is not quick-fix to healing psychosomatic illness, as it requires clearing the subconscious of pain, trigger experiences, the general increasing of a personal chronic emotional state as well as their views and considerations about life. This requires a greater depth of work but can be achieved.

Simple places you can start would be to observe what people, environments and situations trigger emotional and mental stress that leads to a digestive flare up. I will give you a clue…more often than not, people are more likely to become sick or stressed in the presence of a suppressive person (a person who invalidates you, makes small barbs, and generally invalidates you), so become aware of these types of “toxic” people and remove them from your life or confront them. To learn more about “detoxifying your relationships” read this article I wrote.

Otherwise, in general, be more aware and journal about your daily interactions (and thoughts if you can). See if you can notice what you were doing just before you noticed a negative shift in your digestive function.

In the simplest of words, anything you can do to relax is going to majorly improve your digestive health. However, I have personally found that helping people relax, in a world that glorifies busy-ness, is quite the difficult task. But, if you can manage it just by me advising it, great!

Ideally, I would recommend coaching or at the least, enrolling in my online course, Perfect Digestion, to being to master your mind and emotions, and ultimately, your digestive function. I dive very deeply into the topic of psychosomatic illness in relation to digestive disease and provide a lot of exercises, knowledge and help.

Leave me a comment and let me know if you experience and notice a strong correlation between stress and digestive upset or do you find something else to be the major trigger of digestive issues?