Symptoms

Digestive Disorders: IBS and Leaky Gut Are Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue

Written by Dr. Andrew Neville

Digestion, when functioning  properly is a well orchestrated process involving the nervous system, digestive enzymes, and stomach acid. The interesting thing to note is when your stress response system is chronically activated it will suppress your digestive function. Understanding this process is crucial since it connects directly to the treatment recommendations.

There are several mechanisms by which the digestive system is shut down when we are in a chronic stress response. The systematic shutdown starts with the Autonomic Nervous System and is mediated primarily through the main parasympathetic nerve. This nerve innervates the majority of the digestive process, which when under chronic stress begins to suppress our appetite, salivary enzymes, stomach acid production, as well as restrict blood and nerve flow to the digestive organs.

The normal digestive system

The state of your mind is crucial in the initiation phase of the digestive process. The mind is so powerful in fact, that an insulin release from the pancreas can occur from simply thinking about food, this insulin release normally happens as a result of nutrient intake. This proves how important the brain is in the entire process.

If you are stuck in a chronic stress response the stimulation of the digestive process does not get triggered in anticipation of food. Instead, the entire process shuts down before it even starts. So, even though you eat, your digestive fire and all your digestive juices are compromised. 

Hydrochloric acid or HCl production in the stomach is the main stage of digestion, this is where the real work gets done. Strong hydrochloric acid levels are needed to initiate the chemical breakdown of food and to stimulate other digestive processes. 

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The next process in digestion has to do with the release and activation of the many pancreatic digestive enzymes required to process various foodstuffs. The pancreas is stimulated by hydrochloric acid to release pancreatic enzymes. Once released, these enzymes must be cleaved to be activated, which again is dependant upon hydrochloric acid, which then stimulates the gallbladder to produce bile to expedite fatty acid absorption.

This entire digestive process is designed to take larger foodstuffs and break them down into smaller units for absorption. We cannot absorb protein, carbohydrates and fat, but we can absorb amino acids, glucose, and lipids. When the system is in rest and digest the entire digestive process is fully turned on and functions smoothly.

But, what happens when we eat while stuck in a chronic stressed out state?

Your digestion under stress

Did you know that one fifth of our meals in the U.S. are consumed while driving a vehicle? Imagine this- you’re driving down the road hungry with no time or energy to shop and make a meal. Naturally, you pull into a fast food restaurant, order at the drive through and start eating while still trying to maintain control of your vehicle. You are not eating in a “rest and digest” state, but in a stressed out, fight or flight state.

Digestion is now compromised and the food in your mouth is not being predigested by salivary enzymes. The food enters your stomach awaiting chemical digestion of hydrochloric acid, the pancreas is not stimulated, so its enzymes are not released, and the food is left to ferment and rot. The rotting food releases organic acids, which are more caustic than hydrochloric acid, which begins to irritate the digestive mucosal lining. 

Since hydrochloric acid is never secreted, the muscles in the stomach begin the mechanical process of mixing the food around in the little hydrochloric acid that may be there. The physical churning of the stomach may cause it to slide up through the diaphragm initiating the beginning of a hiatal hernia. Burping and belching may occur from the release of gasses from the rotting food.  Some organic acids may squirt up into your throat causing heartburn and reflux. Additionally, areas of vulnerability are created in the mucosal lining that can lead to gastritis or ulcers.

Eventually, the stomach slowly releases the undigested food into the small intestine where it should begin to be absorbed. Sadly, the poorly digested foodstuff is not small enough to be properly absorbed. 

In time, this dysfunctional process can cause nutrient deficiencies and irritation of the mucosal lining, essentially doing damage. The delicate, sensitive, absorptive small intestine is protected by a millimeter thick, Teflon-like lining which begins to thin and wear. This contributes to intestinal permeability, or leaky gut syndrome, which progresses into the development of food allergies. 

Digesting food moves through the intestine by rhythmic muscular contractions called peristaltic waves, this is anchored in the nervous system, and more specifically the vagus nerve. In a stress response the vagus nerve is inhibited. Once the food finally reaches the large intestine, it is difficult for the good bacteria to properly process the food due to its large size. 

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The lack of proper processing will cause some of the good bacteria to die and the problematic bacteria to flourish, thus altering the very delicate bacterial balance in the colon. We call this, dysbiosis. This “dysbiotic” state contributes to a potential condition of yeast or intestinal candida overgrowth. The stage is being set for the potential development of an irritable bowel and possibly inflammation of the bowel, which will contribute to the common symptoms of gas, bloating, diarrhea and/or constipation.

Treatment of a “stressed-out” digestive system

As with treatment of the immune system, treatment of the digestive system does not start with treating the digestive process at all. The first stage of treatment must first and foremost address the fact that the stress-response “brakes” are on, inhibiting this delicate process. Treating digestion in any way without first addressing the chronically active stress response, would be like pushing a car with the parking brake on. The healing process works far better and progresses far faster after the patient has released the parking brake by quieting the stress response.

Eventually, the stomach slowly releases the undigested food into the small intestine where it should begin to be absorbed. Sadly, the poorly digested foodstuff is not small enough to be properly absorbed. 

In time, this dysfunctional process can cause nutrient deficiencies and irritation of the mucosal lining, essentially doing damage. The delicate, sensitive, absorptive small intestine is protected by a millimeter thick, Teflon-like lining which begins to thin and wear. This contributes to intestinal permeability, or leaky gut syndrome, which progresses into the development of food allergies. 

Digesting food moves through the intestine by rhythmic muscular contractions called peristaltic waves, this is anchored in the nervous system, and more specifically the vagus nerve. In a stress response, the vagus nerve is inhibited. Once the food finally reaches the large intestine, it is difficult for the good bacteria to properly process the food due to its large size. 

The lack of proper processing will cause some of the good bacteria to die and the problematic bacteria to flourish, thus altering the very delicate bacterial balance in the colon. We call this, dysbiosis. This “dysbiotic” state contributes to a potential condition of yeast or intestinal candida overgrowth. The stage is being set for the potential development of irritable bowel and possibly inflammation of the bowel, which will contribute to the common symptoms of gas, bloating, diarrhea and/or constipation.

Treatment of a “stressed-out” digestive system

As with the treatment of the immune system, treatment of the digestive system does not start with treating the digestive process at all. The first stage of treatment must first and foremost address the fact that the stress-response “brakes” are on, inhibiting this delicate process. Treating digestion in any way without first addressing the chronically active stress response, would be like pushing a car with the parking brake on. The healing process works far better and progresses far faster after the patient has released the parking brake by quieting the stress response.

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