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How Stress Impacts Digestion

Updated on March 20, 2011

An upset nervous system is liable to affect the digestive and intestinal functions. For example, some stressed or anxious people have to go to the lavatory many times before they leave for work, but thereafter have normal bowel habits. Then there is the condition known as 'intestinal hurry': the result of an over-sensitized gastro-colic reflex. In lay language, this means that a heavy meal settling into the stomach - such as during a business lunch - stimulates activity throughout the length of the gastro-intestinal tract.

The more stressed and tense the person, or the more demanding the meal, the more sensitive the gastro-colic reflex becomes. This is why, when dining in a restaurant that specializes in up market business lunches where both business and social ions collide, you will find few tables from which the younger and less assured don't disappear to relieve themselves before coffee. The combination of anxiety and eating is too much for their tense, stressed intestinal systems. So whether your guts are overactive or you are suffering undue sluggishness, the cause is an upset autonomic nervous system; its balance has gone. Another obvious sign of stress is the loss of appetite and the feeling of nausea after only a few mouthfuls. This particular symptom is especially obvious when the stress is brought on by romance, when people first dine with their newly acquired or potential lover they often lose their appetites entirely.

If you answer 'yes' to the following questions, may well indicate that stress is affecting your intestinal system.

  1. Do you find that, when there are too many problems facing you and your peace of mind has been destroyed, your digestion is out of control? 
  2. Has your bowel activity ever seemed out of control first thing in the morning, but returned to normal for the rest of the day? 
  3. If having a business lunch, do you have to make a rush to the loo after, or even before, the coffee? 
  4. Conversely, have you suddenly become constipated, although your dietary habits remain unchanged?

Remember that a persistent change in bowel habit may be the first symptom of something more serious. If it lasts for more than two or three weeks, visit your doctor.

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