Stress and Fight-or-Flight

My grandfather, Grampie Ed, was a storyteller in a big way. A classic line found in many of his stories was about someone being so scared/surprised/shocked that “he wet his pants!”. As a kid, this was always very funny. Grampie Ed was known to create stories where he could insert his famous one-liners just to hear all the grandkids laugh hysterically.

Grampie Ed’s stories actually have some scientific backing. When the human body goes into “fight-or-flight” mode, all systems shut down except those necessary for survival at that exact moment. Increased blood flow to the brain, heart, lungs and muscles is done at the expense of things with lower priority, like the digestive system (and the urinary system!). This is a good thing because it helps us to be sharp, quick and strong in those rare times when we are facing danger.

What many do not know is that constant stress from our jobs, family life, or anything else can cause the body to remain in fight-or-flight mode. The fight-or-flight chemicals are released continuously into the body and can interfere with our natural balance. Therefore, those who experience chronic stress might not be digesting and absorbing the nutrients of their food into their bodies. If priority is always given to our brain, heart and lungs in order to cope with the continuous stress in our lives, when will we digest our food?

Marc David, in his book Nourishing Wisdom, describes fight-or-flight well:

During any kind of stress, whether a real or imagined one, the body clicks into the classic “fight-or-flight” response. This nervous-system mechanism is an evolutionary adaptation that protects us against outside dangers threatening biological survival – hostile attackers, natural disasters, and anything we must forcibly overcome or quickly avoid.

In the fight-or-flight response blood pressure increases, heart rate increases, blood flow is shunted away from the midsection and digestive system and toward the arms and legs, and digestive functions are shut down. All of the body’s energies are rerouted for powerful arm and leg movements and heightened respiration used for fighting or fleeing. What is most intriguing about the fight-or-flight stress response is that during a stressful day at home or at work when there is no actual danger to your life, the body interprets the emotional stress as life-threatening, and the stress response clicks in to varying degrees, depending on the level of stress.

If you decide to eat a meal in this state, the blood flow to your digestive system may be as much as four times less than the usual amount, and nervous system impulses to the digestive system may have signaled a complete shut-down. You may be eating, but you will not be digesting. Depending on the intensity of the stress and the rate at which your digestive system returns to normal function, food may sit for hours in the stomach undigested or pass through the small intestines with nutrients only minimally assimilated.

So no matter how healthy our diet, an unhealthy mood radically depreciates the nutritional value of a meal. We quite literally have less ability to digest food when our mind is improperly digesting life’s experiences.

And when we aren’t absorbing nutrients from our food, we create bodies and minds that are more susceptible to poor health.

Try to eat in a relaxing environment, even if you are stressed out. Take some time, even ten minutes, to get away from your computer, kids or anything else that stresses you out, and eat your meal in silence. This will help ensure proper absorption of all the essential nutrients.

It will also ensure you don’t wet your pants!

No comments:

Post a Comment