Our digestive system is incredibly complex and I happen to think, one of the most fascinating systems in the human body. If you think about it from the most basic and fundamental level, if your gut isn’t functioning properly you can’t absorb the nutrients you need and get rid of the toxins you don’t. This then has a significant impact in how everything else in our body functions. Naturopaths have been bantering on about the importance of gut health and digestive function for well…ever, but with new science and technology we are starting to understand the level of this importance at an even greater depth.

Having worked with hundreds of ‘gut patients’ in my clinic, I’ve noticed a few patterns that seem to trigger digestive imbalances and have broadly classify these into 5 key areas:

  • Balance of bugs (or the health of your microbiome)
  • Lifestyle and eating patterns
  • Body imbalances or changes (e.g. integrity of the gut lining, impact of hormones, structural changes etc.)
  • Food intolerances, sensitivities or allergies (e.g. Lactose intolerance, coeliac disease or non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, FODMAP intolerances etc. )
  • The impact of stress and emotions

This last one is something that I have been seeing a lot of lately, especially since many of us are so busy. ‘Stress’ can sometimes be a tricky thing to quantify and it doesn’t always have to the working-to-a-deadline or having-a-fight-with-your-partner/kids type stress. It can purely be that you just have lots on your plate and even if all the things are ‘good things’ and ‘everything is fine’, we need to remember that just because we can, doesn’t necessarily mean that we should. Our bodies are quite amazing when it comes to adapting, but we still have a capacity and sometimes, something’s got to give to ensure we have the energy to keep all the balls up in the air. So where does this compromise happen? In our digestive system usually. You may notice things like bloating, gas, reflux, constipation or diarrhoea, lack of appetite or just a sense of ‘blah’. Sounding familiar? Let me explain why.

When we feel stress, our nervous system gets switched on or more specifically our sympathetic nervous system gets activated. This part of the nervous system controls our fight or flight response, helping us decide whether we stay and fight the stress or whether we run away from it. As this happens, our brain, heart, lungs and other energy-producing systems suck up available nutrients so we have the energy to defend ourselves from the thing that is threatening us. To conserve energy, our body shuts down our parasympathetic functions. This is the housekeeping part of the nervous system and the one that controls ‘non-essential’ functions, one of which is digestion.

You might be wondering how your body could possibly see digestion as ‘non-essential’, but from an evolutionary perspective, some of the ways we used to experience stress included being chased by something that could eat us or not knowing if we were going to have enough food to eat. If you were being chased by a tiger or there was a famine, your body’s main concern was keeping you alive! It was not worrying about how much stomach acid you were producing or if you were having regular bowel movements. It also didn’t want to make the situation any worse by stimulating your appetite or having you think about food!

Another important part of the story is that as we were evolving, we weren’t exposed to stress constantly so our bodies had a chance to regain their natural balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic responses. Even though our digestion was temporarily put on hold, it always bounced back once the stressful trigger was dealt with/removed.

Fast forward to today and while most of us no longer have to worry about getting chased by a tiger or running out of food, the programming and wiring in our nervous system and gut remains. Our sympathetic nervous systems are constantly being triggered by deadlines, multitasking and generally leading a ‘busy’ life. We are constantly on the look out for things that might harm us and are always trying to decide if we fight or flight instead of resting and digesting. So, what should we do to help relieve the impact of our busy lives on our digestion? Here are my top 3 tips!

1. Take time out to do something enjoyable

When was the last time you did something that brought you pure joy? Not something out of duty or because you ‘should’ but something that lights up your soul? Doing these things help send a message to our sympathetic nervous system that we are ok and there is nothing to be fearful of. It also helps support our parasympathetic response, allowing our digestion to settle and begin working effectively.

2. Make meditation part of your daily routine

Many people I talk to get intimidated by meditation – ‘It’s not my thing’, ‘I can’t meditate’ or ‘I don’t know how’ are some of the common responses I hear in clinic. Meditation in it’s purest form is being able to focus your mind. It isn’t about ‘not thinking’; it’s more about being able to focus your thoughts. This allows us to turn down the background noise and helps us regain the balance between our sympathetic and parasympathetic responses. Meditation apps or guided meditations can be really helpful. You could even do something as simple as counting your breath or your steps on your way to work. It doesn’t need to be for a long period of time – it just needs to be consistent. Try and incorporate it alongside something that you do daily so you will be reminded to do it.

3. Look after your bugs

The connection between our gut and nervous system also affects the balance of bugs within our digestive tract. Making a consistent effort to feed our bugs, especially when we are stressed, can help do damage control in an otherwise chaotic environment. Fibre rich prebiotic foods like whole grain rye, oats and spelt, apples, green leafy veggies, asparagus, leeks, garlic and onions are wonderful inclusions to make sure your little bugs can weather the storm.

Life is busy and for many of us, it’s always going to be busy. Supporting and looking after ourselves is no longer something we do ‘when we have time’. We need to come up with ways to cleverly weave these aspects of self-care into our daily routine so that they just become part of what we do. I’d love to hear what you have been doing! Or if you need some help coming up with a plan, let’s chat about it at your next consultation.