Oh no, not you too! It's like we're all suffocating in a giant, stress-filled bubble and nobody knows what to do about it. Sure, there are a few solutions out there, but more often than not, they don't seem to be working. Well, here’s some added, not-so-great news: Guess where all that stress might be congealing? Your digestive system!
Stress and anxiety. Constipation and gut health issues. Have you noticed these things often go hand in hand? When we get wound up, it often leads to us being bound up. Ever wondered why?
The Stress Gut Connection
Stress can affect your body in a variety of ways, from making your head spin to making your stomach churn. You may start to feel fatigued, have difficulty concentrating and remembering things, experience chest tightness or tension headaches, and even crave sugary or fatty foods. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or anxious for no obvious reason, noticing some depression, or even experiencing panic attacks, it's probably related to stress that you’ve learned to tune out. Your body will try to acclimate to long-term, chronic stress but there’s always a price to pay.
If you leave stress and anxiety unattended, you're inviting an added side of constipation! Unfortunately, with how our bodies are designed, stress triggers digestive “events." Let's look at why, how it snowballs, and what you can do about it before things get really….uncomfortable.
Our amazing biochemical bodies turn physical experiences and thoughts into biochemical brain signals and then our brains in turn create biochemical reactions telling our bodies how to react…in a never-ending loop. Our hormones are the signal team and the transportation captains constantly trying to create balance and ensure our survival. When physical and mental stressors show up, and it's all hands on deck!
In a state of distress, your body starts pumping out more of the hormone cortisol. Too much of this hormone stops down your digestive system leading to uncomfortable constipation and other issues.
Even if you're “trying to relax," that underlying feeling of anxiousness and overwhelm that seems to be the new normal of modern daily life triggers the same distress response processes to take place. Part of your body's defense against stress is a somatic response: your body tenses and your muscles tighten…even those in your digestive tract, further contributing to constipation or other serious gut issues. It's not just uncomfortable, it can also affect nutrient absorption, which over time, dominoes into other long-term health issues.
When we are constantly exposed to stress (and we are constantly exposed to stress these days), our bodies continually release too much cortisol making us tired, cranky, pudgy, and susceptible to every bug that comes along. Don’t shoot the messenger! Cortisol isn’t the bad guy, it's just the chemical messenger that helps keep us safe and alert in times of danger.
Get Me Outta Here!
There’s also that hardwired fight, flight, or freeze response we have. It’s supposed to be a momentary response to save us from our peaceful “Be Here Now” vibe to protecting us when the saber tooth tiger approaches with a “Be There….WAY Over There” reaction and then back to our “Be Here Now” calm because we're safe. But our lives are filled with chronic stress! Consequently, our bodies release cortisol and its pal adrenaline constantly to our “second brain," and we feel like we're constantly in a marathon (Maybe that’s why we have a “gut instinct” that the “rat race” is killing us.)
Our survival instinct triages the energy resources being used throughout our bodies. Cortisol signals our bodies to store fat in low-use body parts (elbows, knees, back) so we have fast energy reserves for a quick getaway. Other systems get down-regulated because they aren't vital to an immediate getaway (think skin, slowed hair growth, sluggish digestion, and overwhelmed/inefficient blood filtration.) And we become hypervigilant - just waiting for the next shoe to drop - which creates a feedback loop where non-threatening events become heightened and trigger an out-of-balance stress response.
Sound familiar? Is it any wonder you're just over it?!
Stress and anxiety also interfere with the production of serotonin. While most people think of serotonin as a brain chemical, our bodies produce about 95% of it in our gut. Along with your feelings of happiness, serotonin also regulates the muscles in the stomach and intestines. Yet again, that sucker punch of stress starts in the digestive tract!
Without enough serotonin signaling to your gut that things are cool, your muscles won't properly contract. Without those contractions (aka peristalsis), you'll experience slowed bowel movements. Irregular digestion lets food just ferment away in your belly. The bacteria in your bowels have a field day creating gas and reproducing at a rabbit's pace. Those backed-up toxins flood your bloodstream, and all that sludge will even leave you in a foul mood.
If you can take a moment from the breakneck speed of life, you'll also observe some other stress-related side effects building like skin problems and brittle nails from impaired nutrient absorption, added fatigue, sleeplessness, lowered immune strength, inflammation, weight gain, depression – it's a giant snowball effect.
Stop The Madness!
You've probably experienced that when you’re stressed, things in number 2 land go one of two ways - either a speed-up digestion leading to watery stools or diarrhea (everyone out of the pool) situation or a lock-things-down-and hold-on-to-that sh*t, we-need-that-digestion-energy-to-flee-and-we’ll-get-back-to-this-later response.
You're also probably feeling a little stressed and anxious from just reading this article!
Good news! Stop pulling your hair out (oops, that hair loss is another side effect of too much stress too) - there are ways to calm those frazzled nerves and help keep constipation at bay beyond the usual jokes of “this too shall pass.” We're all familiar with the lifestyle “stress advice” we get from our healthcare advisors, the checklists they give out from HR, or those cute magazine “score cards” we all secretly use to evaluate our lives while we clutch a cup of coffee, hoping to get things moving. We have articles and apps that tell us about this study or that research that shows you can reduce stress when you “take regular deep
breaths,” “get some exercise,” “take regular breaks from work throughout the day,” “drink enough water,” “eat lots of foods that are purple,” and "say positive things to yourself in the mirror"...but real life isn't always that easy.
It may be time to call in the big guns….the herbal big guns!
Welcome To The World Of Adaptogens
Adaptogens are a group of plant-based substances found in herbs that restore balance and support your body's response to stress. These plants have an amazing ability to lower stress-induced biochemical reactions or elevate suppressed biochemical responses. Adaptogens have been used for centuries by Ayurvedic practitioners as healing powders added to food, poultices, tinctures and extracts, and teas. They are natural, safe, and can be taken for long periods of time without any side effects. You're probably most familiar with ginseng since it's been a fad ingredient in recent years showing up in everything from foods to drinks to ginseng shots to skincare and haircare products.
But the most trusted and utilized adaptogen for stress is ashwagandha, and thankfully, it’s especially effective at soothing stress-induced gut reactions.
Ashwagandha – Your Herbal Therapist
With everything we've talked about regarding cortisol, you can see why it gets a bad rap. But cortisol has some important functions - it helps us wake up and fall asleep, it helps us cope with stress by regulating our blood pressure and metabolic functions, it prepares us for that "fight, flight, or freeze" survival reaction by increasing our heart rate and blood pressure, and it triggers a release of glucose into our bloodstream for fast energy.
Ashwagandha works with your body to keep cortisol levels balanced to ease anxiety and lower stress*. You know what they say – if you want your digestion to go well, Ashwagandha and chill. (Okay, nobody says that. But I thought it was funny and you’ll see in a minute, people SHOULD say that!)
The primary active ingredient in Ashwagandha is withanolides which has been clinically proven to reduce stress reactions, boost immunity, and improve overall gut health. It's also known for its anti-inflammatory properties, it helps soothe pain associated with constipation and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS/IBD), and it relieves other digestive disorders.
Ashwagandha has been used and trusted for centuries to up and down-regulate hormones. It improves digestive issues by increasing the production of digestive enzymes, improving nutrient absorption, and restoring healthy gut bacteria. In turn, this reduces bloating, cramps, and other uncomfortable digestive conditions. And now, finally, our medical professionals are getting hip to what Ayurveda has known for centuries; ashwagandha is the subject of many studies, and Western medicine is documenting its benefits with good science.
Ultimately, ashwagandha is like a great therapist in plant form, helping you chill out, cope with stress, bring down the inflammation, and resolve that constipation (and gas) messing with your life.
How does that make you feel? Relieved in so many senses of the word!
How To Use Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha comes from the roots and leaves of the Withania somnifera plant. Make sure you use a standardized dosage to get reliable ashwagandha benefits; your supplement should match the potency documented in clinical testing to work. The research shows that taking 250 to 600 mg divided in half for a morning and evening dose produces the best results. You'll notice healthy changes quickly, and they will continue to build with weeks of use.
While many companies sell non-standardized ashwagandha powder in capsules or put scant amounts in their formulas to make marketing claims, you want the most trusted source of ashwagandha called Sensoril® . It's been clinically tested in 10 randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled human trials -- the gold standard of clinical research. Sensoril® is triple standardized and Natreon, the company that produces Sensoril®, holds multiple US patents for their ashwagandha. Their potent extract is vegan, non-GMO, gluten-free, Kosher, and Halal certified. (View their peer-reviewed research here.)
If you’re bound up from being wound up, let the adaptogenic properties of ashwagandha help you get back to your happy place. Get natural relief from stress and cortisol overload, and help bring your endocrine and digestive health back into balance.
“Ashwagandha and chill” – it’s what bodies have been doing for centuries.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
Ashwagandha is an important part of many Health Direct formulas. Get the health benefits of chillin’ with Sensoril® in our premium liquid multivitamin, Nature’s Optimal Nutrition, and from our adrenal support formula, Restorit.
Lisa Moretti is a Certified Health Coach from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition (IIN), the largest nutrition school in the world. She was at the top of her cohort in 2015. She's been involved in the natural health and supplement world professionally since 1981.