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Stress-Proofing the GI Tract

By Chris D. Meletis, ND

Last month, I began a three-part series about how stress affects the human body with the introductory article focusing on the effect that stress has on cognition and memory. In part two of this series I will explain how stress can impair proper digestion leading to constipation, diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive disorders.

Like all systems of the human body, the gastrointestinal tract does not operate independently. Its proper functioning depends upon other aspects of the human body. Because gastrointestinal function is controlled and coordinated by the central nervous system to ensure effective motility, secretion, absorption and mucosal immunity,1 it's logical that emotional stress can have a huge impact on colon health—especially considering the highest amount of serotonin, the neurotransmitter most commonly associated with happiness, resides in our GI tract. Furthermore, during the holidays, a time when we already are exposed to additional amounts of GI-impairing emotional stress, we are further burdening our digestive tracts by consuming large amounts of sugary treats and refined carbohydrates. In this article I will offer some suggestions on how one can strengthen digestive health at this time of year and beyond.

The connection between the gut and emotional health is evidenced by the fact that improving the health of the gut can also improve emotional well being. The absence of probiotic bacteria in the gut has been shown to not only impair colonic health but also to affect the functioning of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and monoaminergic activity, features that have been implicated in the origins of depression. In one study, researchers evaluated the potential antidepressant properties of probiotics, by giving rats the probiotic Bifidobacteria infantis then exposing the animals to a forced swim test in order to stress the animals. The study authors also assessed the effects of the probiotic on immune, neuroendocrine and central monoaminergic activity. After being treated for 14 days with B. infantis, the rats' swim behaviors did not change. However, the probiotic significantly reduced pro-inflammatory immune responses including IFN-gamma, TNF-alpha and IL-6 cytokines. Furthermore, there was a marked increase in plasma concentrations of tryptophan (an amino acid and serotonin precursor known for its relaxation properties) in the bifidobacteria-treated rats when compared to controls.2 The researchers concluded that the preliminary findings provide “encouraging evidence in support of the proposition that this probiotic may possess antidepressant properties.”

The worsening of irritable bowel syndrome also has been linked to stress. In a study of 105 subjects with mild IBS (68 of the diarrhea-predominant type and 37 of the constipation-predominant type), subjects were followed for three years. During this time, there was a worsening of IBS in 37 subjects. The researchers linked seven factors as being predictive of the onset of full-blown IBS including exposure to emotional stressors, two kinds of stress-coping styles, eating habits, sleeping time and psychological abuse.3

Levels of the stress hormone cortisol also have been found to be elevated in irritable bowel syndrome patients4 and a faster resolution of cortisol to basal values corresponds to lower symptom-severity.5 Additionally, psychological distress and GI symptoms are related to the severity of bloating in women with irritable bowel syndrome.6 Stress also appears to damage the gastrointestinal tracts of individuals not suffering from outright bowel diseases. In healthy individuals, disrupted cortisol levels have been linked to the development of diarrhea.7

Recent well-designed studies have confirmed that adverse life events, chronic stress and depression increase the likelihood of relapse in patients with quiescent IBD. This evidence is increasingly supported by studies of experimental stress in animal models of colitis. In animal models of colitis, psychological or environmental stress may increase gastrointestinal permeability, allowing abnormal antigen to be presented to the immune system and leading to the worsening of intestinal inflammation. The increased intestinal permeability under stress is controlled by corticotropin-releasing hormone stimulation through nicotinic, adrenergic and cholinergic receptors, suggesting a complex interplay between sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.8-9

Chronic stress may have a role to play in the inflammation that occurs in Crohn's disease (CD), a chronic inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract, whose etiology involves genetic, psychological, immune and inflammatory factors. A higher prevalence of psychological disorders has been observed in CD patients and studies show that there may be a relationship between psychological stress and CD, controlled by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal and the hypothalamic-autonomic nervous system axes.10

Text Box: Digestive SystemProtecting the GI Tract from Stress

Protecting the digestive tract during times of psychological stress is important at any time of year. But during the holiday season, when we are under increased stress and consuming an excess of sugary, rich foods, protecting the GI tract is more important than ever. Protecting the health of the colon with GI Support Formula, Lectin Lock, BioPRO and Digestive Enzymes can be an effective approach to improving GI integrity during times of stress.

GI Support Formula

Glutamine, DGL, N-Acetyl-Glucosamine, Marshmallow, Berberine, Cabbage, Slippery Elm, Phosphatidylcholine and Gamma Oryzanol (all found in GI Support Formula) work together to strengthen the health of the GI Tract. Glutamine, the most abundant free amino acid in the body, is critical for maintaining intestinal structure. The GI tract has the largest demand for glutamine in the body.11 Human studies have shown that supplemental glutamine can reduce the chemotherapy-induced increase in intestinal permeability12 and decrease the duration of diarrhea in children.13 In animal studies, supplemental glutamine promoted repair of intestinal mucosa after chronic diarrhea.14

Other important GI-healing substances include:

Deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL), which seems to be similar to carbenoxolone, a semisynthetic derivative of glycyrrhetic acid used outside the US for treating gastric and duodenal ulcer disease.15-16 Clinically, DGL demonstrates great utility in lessening intestinal irritation and related symptoms.

N-Acetyl-Glucosamine, which has been found to be deficient in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), reducing the synthesis of the gastric and intestinal mucosa's protective glycoprotein cover.17

Marshmallow, which contains mucilage polysaccharides that soothe and protect mucous membranes from local irritation by creating a protective layer.18-19

Berberine, which helps control inflammation in the GI tract by selectively inhibiting cyclooxygenase (COX)-2 expression and blocking proinflammatory cytokines.20

Cabbage, which lowers the risk of developing stomach and colorectal cancer21 and raw cabbage juice consumed by 100 peptic ulcer patients dramatically reduced pain, and significantly reduced healing time.22

Slippery Elm preparations, which trigger gentle stimulation of nerve endings in the GI tract, leading to mucous secretion that coats and protects the delicate lining of the intestines from ulcers, excess acidity, ingested irritants and toxins.23-24

Phosphatidylcholine, which was shown in a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of patients with ulcerative colitis to be low in the colonic mucus of these patients. These low phosphatidylcholine levels are a likely contributory factor involved in the development of ulcerative colitis.25

Gamma oryzanol, which is highly regarded in Japan to promote a healthy gastrointestinal environment. In animal models, it appears to modulate pituitary secretion, and inhibit excess gastric acid secretion and platelet aggregation.26

Blocking Lectins

Lectins are a class of proteins found in common foods, especially grains, seeds, beans, nuts, some fruits and vegetables and seafood. They act as a sort of an immune system for plants by “sticking” themselves to the structural carbohydrates (sugars) of invaders. When we eat foods containing these proteins we risk lectin attachments to the structural carbohydrates (sugars) antigens found in the gut and immune system. Lectin attacks in the gut initiate inflammation that may be expressed in other parts of the body. Lectins from the diet damage the delicate intestinal lining (the microvilli) and negatively influence gut permeability (leaky gut) and protein digestion. Lectins contribute to food sensitivities (or food intolerances) and may provoke the immune system to make antibodies against them. IBS, for example, is a symptom of lectin-related food intolerances.

Genetic individuality determines our recognition of food as friend or foe and it is not based on the nutritional value of a food. For example, tomatoes contain lycopene, an important antioxidant, but tomatoes also contain a panhemagglutinin lectin (Lycopersicon esculentum agglutinin) that is not harmless. It lowers mucin, binds to blood cells, nerve tissue, and interferes with gastrin in the stomach creating problems in susceptible people.27-28 (Consider watermelon, guava and red grapefruit or a supplement to consume adequate amounts of lycopene.) The same is true of many foods. Foods like corn, dairy, chicken, peas, bananas, beans and legumes, soy, potatoes, pomegranate, nuts, cantaloupe, seafood, wheat, millet and many more, although they contain a variety of very healthful nutrients, contain potentially harmful lectins that can cause problems in some people.

Consuming a combination of lectin-blocking ingredients such as N-acetylglucosamine (NAG), bladderwrack, Okra, D-mannose and sodium alginate (all found in Lectin Lock) can protect the colon against the onslaught of lectin-containing foods we are exposed to during holiday gatherings and all year long.29-34

Digestive Enzymes

Each of the five main digestive enzymes has a different role to play. Amylase digests starch. Protease breaks down the peptide bonds that join the amino acids in a protein, ensuring the amino acids are readily available to the body. The enzyme lipase splits apart emulsified fats. Lactase digests milk sugar, while cellulase helps break down plant and vegetable matter. These enzymes are secreted by the pancreas and are often referred to as pancreatic enzymes. Deficiencies of these enzymes can wreak havoc on the digestive tract, causing bloating, flatulence and gastrointestinal discomfort.35-37 Without proper supplies of these enzymes, the body struggles to digest the high-fat or high-starch meals frequently consumed during the holidays.

Vitamin Research Products' Digestive Enzymes is a unique, plant-based formula containing amylase, protease, lactase, lipase and cellulase. The vegetarian enzymes are generally better tolerated than animal-derived enzymes as a source of nourishment for the intestinal tract.

Friendly Flora

As mentioned earlier in this article, probiotic bacteria are linked to both GI health and mental well being. The “good” bacteria Bifidobacteria infantis has been found to have anti-depressant properties in animals under stress.2 Furthermore, strains of Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium longum have been tested in humans experiencing stress-induced gastrointestinal symptoms. In the double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized study conducted on volunteers with symptoms of stress, subjects received a probiotic-containing Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium longum or a placebo without probiotics for three weeks. The consumption of probiotics significantly reduced 2 stress-induced gastrointestinal symptoms (abdominal pain and nausea/vomiting).38

Bifidobacteria infantis, Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium longum are all found in BioPRO.


The gastrointestinal tract is especially vulnerable to psychological stress, but never more so than during the holidays when it is being subjected to an array of unhealthy foods. Supplementing with nutrients shown to heal the GI tract, lectin-blocking nutrients, digestive enzymes and a good probiotic formula will strengthen the digestive system and provide it with an overall foundation of health during the holidays and throughout the year.


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