Colon Cancer - Silent Killer

Work-Related Stress and Your Digestive Health

From the job candidate who feels "butterflies in her stomach" before an interview, to the decision-maker who relies on "gut feelings," the connection between your mind and your stomach is undeniable. In fact, the stomach and intestines contain more nerve cells than your entire spinal cord.

Medical experts often refer to the "brain-gut axis," the strong connection between the brain and the digestive system. We usually think about stress causing stomach distress, but it also works the other way; digestive problems can result in an increased level of stress.

Many jobs involve a certain level of stress, but some more than others. In addition, some people feel stress more acutely than others do. Here are just some of the symptoms that may indicate your stress levels are high enough to affect your digestive health:

  • Stiffness or tension in your muscles
  • Headaches
  • Restlessness or difficulty sleeping
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Procrastination or difficulty completing projects
  • Changes in alcohol or food consumption
  • Increased desire to be with or withdraw from others
  • Frequent talking or brooding about work situations
  • Overwhelming sense of pressure
  • Difficulty relaxing
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions

Stress reduction and stress management are important for everyone, but especially for those with high-stress positions. Two keys to managing stress are regular exercise and adequate sleep, both of which provide a host of other health benefits as well. Movement — walking, running, swimming, biking — changes the balance of stress hormones in your brain and helps flush out the chemicals your body releases due to stress. Sleeping in complete darkness increases production of melatonin, which has been shown to help reduce stress-induced lesions in the GI tract.

Likewise, a healthy diet plays a big role in reducing stress levels. Stay away from simple sugars and starches like chips, cookies and ice cream, and reduce or avoid caffeine and alcohol. Instead, opt for fruits, vegetables and other high fiber foods, and complex carbohydrates. Some tasty choices that make sense for a low-stress diet include cashews and walnuts, berries, oranges, dark chocolate and chamomile or green tea.

It’s worth pointing out how all of these approaches work together. For example, eating well and exercising help us sleep better, so one behavior aids another. Likewise, yoga, meditation, prayer and other relaxation strategies can help lower stress while yielding additional health benefits. And don’t underestimate the value of positive social interaction — quality time relaxing with family and friends.

Finally, keep in mind the relationship between stress and disorders of the digestive system. Stress can contribute to everything from heartburn to irritable bowel syndrome, but these conditions, especially when undiagnosed and untreated, can also induce stress. Talk with your doctor if you experience any ongoing symptoms related to your digestive tract.

Dr. James C. Strobel MD
Gastroenterology of Southern Indiana

Dr. Strobel joined GSI in July of 1997. He received his undergraduate degree from Indiana University in Bloomington, and his medical degree from Indiana University in Indianapolis, followed by a residency in Internal Medicine, three years of additional training, and a fellowship in Gastroenterology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Dr. Strobel is board certified in both Internal Medicine and Gastroenterology.

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