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A reminder of the link between stress, anxiety and bloating
Posted 2 years ago by Clare
Have you spent weeks attending to your diet, cutting out wheat and dairy, hanging out at the health food store in an attempt to get rid of that little bloating bulge that grows in your midriff over the day? Have you starved yourself all day, eating only an avocado for lunch, because you need to stay flat for that little dress you want to wear that night? Have you then really worried about your holiday swimming pool look, and packed all the supplements you can think of to stay flat..... only to get there and find you don’t bloat at all!? How is it, that after all the restrictions you normally give yourself at home you eat that white bread and tzatiski dreading the bloat to grow, only to find it doesn’t!? Where did the bloating, distension, the sticky out tummy go? The answer is....you left it behind at the departure airport, alongside the stress and anxiety.
Of course many of us do have mild food intolerances, low stomach acid, imbalanced gut bacteria among many other digestive complaints. However, these real imbalances and issues we have are exacerbated by our biggest challenge in life – stress and anxiety.
I would say that both professionally and personally I see many people struggle with the growing burdens of life. And how easily we lose the perspective on how this is actually affecting our health, and overall sense of wellbeing. We are on such a roll trying to achieve perfection that we have forgotten what it feels like to be calm, present in the moment and what 'feeling healthy', or not bloating, actually feels like.
So here is a reminder to step back and think about that – is this possibly you? Or even partly you?
As a nutritional therapist I take symptoms very seriously, they are my guide to the root of the problem, the cause of the imbalance that is causing discomfort and pain. And so often this can be brought back to unresolved grief, shock, a self-perception of personal failure, or indeed just a chronically stressful situation that is difficult to resolve.
So what is the science behind the link between stress and anxiety and bloating?
Well there are several ways in which these emotions can affect our digestion.
Firstly – fight or flight mode – described here – when our body puts itself in a ready position to deal with stress, it reduces the blood supply to the digestive system as that is not a vital function for immediate survival. This is fine when only happening occasionally but you can imagine the havoc that can cause when happening endlessly. Reduced blood supply equals reduced function for many reasons, such as imbalaced gut bacteria, reduced absorption, reduced peristalsis, reduced oxygen support to the gut. The list goes on.
Secondly - our brain and gut are deeply linked. Scientists call this little brain the enteric nervous system (ENS). This is essentially two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining your gastrointestinal tract from top to bottom. Not so little then! So not surprising then that our mood affects the function of our gut. And believe it or not, but scientists have discovered that it works the other way too, that those with IBS, bloating etc are possibly more likely to become anxious or depressed. Did you know that 95% of serotonin is based in the gut!
Thirdly - stress triggers the release of Cortisol. Cortisol leads to water retention which makes us feel bloated. If you are a woman you may like to read my blog on how hormones and the menopause affects your digestive system.
I suspect you are likely to be reading this and getting quite frustrated thinking that you just don’t want to be told to be less stressed. I’m not going to do that as I understand how frustrating that can be! However, I am going to urge you to look at WHY you are stressed, anxious or maybe even depressed. The overall feeling of stress is difficult to deal with, manage and just simply reduce. If we could magically reduce our stress levels, none of us would be stressed! However, if we break it down and look at what is causing it, we stand a chance of making a change.
Try considering the following:
1) What events or moments make your heart race (not talking George Clooney or Keira Knightly here by the way people), or your stomach tighten? Is it the endless emails pouring into your inbox, the kids not being dressed on time, a dysfunctional relationship or worry about performing at work that causes you the feeling of stress?
2) What happens to your body in these moments? Is your chest tight? Is your stomach tight? Do you feel dizzy? Forgetful? Panicky? Angry? Is your breathing right up under your chin rather than your stomach?
3) Do you feel emotionally nourished? What are you missing in your life that nourishes you? Nature is a big one. It encourages mindfulness and a moment of almost earthing ourselves back into our planet rather than the disconnectedness of our cyber world. Or is it exercise? Art? Dance? Or time with your loved one – connected time? Bizarrely, it’s often what we are missing in life that makes us stressed, rather than the actual perceived stressor.
4) Are you harbouring emotions? This is a biggie. This stems from our society’s apparent pressure for us to look good, be right, be ‘successful’, fit in. Many of us feel we have to be ‘perfect’ , whatever that is. We often suppress emotions and you may realise that it may be difficult for you to express yourself (this is especially hard for men) as you may feel this will be perceived as a weakness and there is a pressure to be 'strong'. However, suppressed emotions, is in fact a cause of bloating! Anger, sadness, and fear are emotions that you can feel in your stomach- literally.
So I think you’ve got the picture I am trying to paint. I am not in any way dismissing the real possibility, and in fact likelihood, of physiological imbalances which cause bloating and discomfort. There are indeed many things you can do to help alleviate our bloating. However, from my experience, I cannot see how you can detach the emotional from the physical. Mindfulness is not a big buzz word at the moment by accident. In this age of technology, social media, and frantic texting it is hard to see a space to just ‘be’, to be present and feel how you are feeling and allow it. None of it is wrong. We are who we are. Some stressors are very real and can’t just be pushed away. However, the common assumption that we should just be able to endlessly cope with them as though they are not stressful is not correct and is not good for your health.
If this in any way speaks to you then I urge you to hold on to that moment and think about what you might need. Get yourself some support whether a herbalist or a counsellor or maybe some self help books to get you thinking, or simply being more open with friends. Write down the pros and cons in your life, what works and what doesn’t. Come up with one or two things you could simply change in your life to give you a little space and nourishment.
We need to remind ourselves to channel our energies back into what works for us in life and in doing so we will slowly reduce that anxiety and stress, and in doing that bloating may no longer be such an issue for that dress you would like to wear.
There are many Apps, books and tools available to us to help us reduce stress and anxiety and to focus energy more in life – we would love to hear what has worked for you.
If you would like some ideas for products to help with bloating read these blog posts:
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