Fight, flight or digest

I have many patients that come into my practice for a wide range of digestive problems caused by poor diet and eating habits.  However, I also see many patients who have healthy diets and excellent eating habits but still suffer from digestive problems. Obviously they are looking for answers as to why this is the case. Often as we dig deeper into their health history the answer becomes quite clear. STRESS.  Emotional, physical and mental stress over long and short periods of time can wreak havoc on digestive health.

The majority of our digestive functions are not under our conscious control but instead are regulated by a system known as the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).  The ANS is divided into what we refer to in Chinese Medicine as a yin and Yang response. The first response, the Yin response, is known as the Parasympathetic response or the rest and digest response and it is governed by the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). The second and the Yang response is known as the Sympathetic response or the fight or flight response and it is governed by the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS).

Let us begin with the latter.  The Sympathetic Nervous System evolved to aid the body in times of stress, and it does this by stimulating the unconscious release of the neurotransmitter known as noradrenaline.  Once released noradrenaline will increase heart rate, mental concentration and blood circulation to skeletal muscles. It will also provide the body with immediate energy by releasing stored glucose (sugar).  The Sympathetic response was and still is a crucial life-saving adaption, especially during the hunter gather days (Paleolithic area) when humans needed quick and sometimes powerful reactions to escape predators and other lethal threats. 

The problem in modern times with the Sympathetic response is two fold.  The first, the Sympathetic Nervous System cannot distinguish between life threatening events such as being chased by a hungry bear and not so life threatening event like getting in a disagreement with a coworker.  The Sympathetic Nervous System perceives a threat/stressor and it responds. Unfortunately this leads to the flight or flight response engaged far too often for too many people. 

The second problem is that the Sympathetic Nervous System is not concerned with digestive function at all and when stress stimulates the Sympathetic Nervous System the body halts production of stomach acid, digestive enzymes, saliva, and bile.   The unconscious and healthy contraction of the intestines known as “peristalsis” also stops which can lead to bloating, constipation and inadequate digestion and absorption.  Over time this stress-induced assault on the digestive system can lead to countless other digestive and systemic health concerns.

The low stress Parasympathetic rest and digest response provides the physiological conditions for the digestive system to perform as optimally as possible.  Once the Parasympathetic response in initiated the body’s resources are directed toward the vital organs and the functions of circulation, oxygenation and digestion. The more time spent in the Parasympathetic rest and digest response the better your digestive and overall health will be in both the short and long term.


Going From Sympathetic to Parasympathetic

  • Regular exercise  

Something as simple as walking 20 minutes a day can lower your overall stress levels and Sympathetic response.

  • Meditation  

The calming effect of deep diaphragmatic breathing can quickly take the body from a state of fight or flight to rest and digest.

  • Acupuncture

Acupuncture is effective at treating many types of digestive problems but in particular digestive problems that stem from stress or a Sympathetic cause.  Why is that?  Because Acupuncture works directly on the nervous system and has a regulating affect on the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and quickly shifts the body from a Sympathetic fight or flight state to an optimal and healthy Parasympathetic rest and digest state.


If you have any questions about digestive issues or would like to book a consultation please visit my website: www.kelownaacupunctureclinic.com  or contact my office at 250-860-2212.

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About the Author

Ryan Samuels is a Registered Acupuncturist and Chinese Medical Herbalist (R.Ac, R.TCMP) at KLO Chiropractic Centre in Kelowna. He holds a Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine diploma, and has a special interest in the treatment of digestive issues, neuropathy, acute & chronic pain, sports injuries, and migraines.  All treatments with Ryan are individualized and designed around your current physical and mental well being. 

Website link:  http://www.kelownaacupunctureclinic.com/

Contact Email:  [email protected] 

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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