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Busting a Gut – Work Stress

“Butterflies in your stomach”, “a hungry man is an angry man” and “gut-wrenching experience” are but a few expressions with one common denominator: they strongly suggest that our emotions are very much connected to our stomach and gut, both incidentally belonging to the gastrointestinal tract (GIT).

We use such expressions to describe emotional situations precisely because our gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to our emotions. Anger, anxiety, sadness, worry – all of these emotions, and many others, trigger a physical reaction in the gut.

Scientists have in recent years discovered that the gastrointestinal system takes the brunt of our negative emotions. And in modern urban living, the bulk of negative emotions come from work-related stress.

Nuvanta recently held a workshop entitled, “Gut Feelings on Work Stress – Work Stress: More Dangerous than Previously Thought” and brought together an international panel of speakers including Consultant Physician Dr. Paras Doshi, Clinical Psychologist Dr. Pryidarshini Srinivasan and Gastroenterologist & Natural Therapies Practitioner Dr. Vagif Soultanov.

Chances are, you may already be experiencing heartburn, gastritis, gastroesophageal reflux (GERD) and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) but are unaware of it. Perhaps you have experienced a burning sensation in the chest area or a lingering sour-bitter taste at the back of your tongue or are regurgitating acid after a meal or having an uncomfortable gassy, bloating feeling which come about without reason.

Other symptoms such as a dry cough, difficulty swallowing and recurring tummy aches might actually be an indication of gastrointestinal distress.

“Symptoms of GERD are abdominal discomfort, indigestion, bloating, gas and upper abdominal pain. It is also the third leading cause of chronic cough after sinus problems and asthma. If the reflux makes it all the way up through to the back of our throat, it is called LPRD, or Laryngopharyngeal Reflux Disease. Our throat is much more sensitive to stomach acid and digestive enzymes,” said Dr.Vagif Soultanov, the expert in GIT and gastro diseases.

To facilitate better understanding on gastrointestinal challenges, guests were asked to complete a short EQ test to assess their emotional intelligence which is an indicator of how one manages work stress. The workshop’s main aim was to educate working adults on the relationship between work stress and gastrointestinal health.

Going in depth, Dr. Priya enlightened the audiences on stress-coping mechanisms while Dr. Doshi shed light into the psychosomatic relationship between stress and the gastrointestinal tract. Dr. Soultanov further elaborated on the effects of stress on our gut and how gastro diseases left unchecked, could lead to cancer.

“Stress activates our “fight or flight” response, which inhibits gastrointestinal secretion and reduces blood flow to the gut giving rise to indigestion. When a person is under stress, this can affect the movement of the GI tract, cause inflammation to flare-up or make the person more susceptible to infection”, said Dr. Doshi.

How Stress Develops

“Stress develops when we fail to respond appropriately to emotional or physical threats. Our body reacts defensively when threatened by the environment in order to achieve both physical and psychological balance,” said Dr. Priya.

“Feeling emotionally, physically and mentally drained is a sign that stress is present. Other symptoms of work stress include feeling tired all day, reluctance in going to work, watching the clock, loss of concentration and excessive absenteeism,” added Dr. Priya.

Emotions vs. Gut

No one who has felt nauseated before a presentation or performance needs to be told how closely the gut and brain
are interconnected. Although not every functional gastrointestinal (GI) illness is “all in the head”, psychology can combine with physical factors to cause symptoms.

“We now know that the brain has a direct line to the stomach. As food makes its 30-foot journey through the digestive tract, the brain and digestive tract is continuously in dialogue. This two-way communication explains why you stop eating when you’re full – nerves in the gut tell the brain that the stomach is distended. It is also why anxiety over an afternoon doctor’s appointment could ruin your appetite for breakfast.

The brain and the gut are so intimately connected that they should be viewed as one system, not two. When the gut acts up for no obvious physical or infectious cause, trying to heal it without considering the impact of stress and emotion is like trying to improve an employee’s performance without considering his work environment or his boss,” explained Dr. Soultanov.

Burn Out – Burn In

Competitive work environments, demanding workloads and long hours are some of the reasons why many working adults are facing work stress. Fifty percent of the adult population in Malaysia suffers from at least one gastrointestinal condition and 16% suffer from acid reflux.

“We will not be able to avoid stress all the time but what we can do is to prepare and protect our body and tummies from the harmful effects of work stress.

Stress not only causes people to suffer burnout, it also triggers a slow-burn in the tummy manifested as gastritis. Gastritis refers to the inflammation of the stomach lining. If left unaddressed, gastritis then develops into ulcers.

About 90% of chronic gastritis and ulcer cases are caused by Helicobacter pylori (H.pylori) infection. The presence of this cancer-causing tummy bacterium increases the risk of stomach cancer by six times. H.pylori infection is common and at least half of the world’s population have it in their tummies,” said Dr.Soultanov.

Bumping EQ, Busting Stress

Dr. Priya recommended a powerful tool used by psychologists to enable working adults to achieve lesser stress, higher productivities and higher incomes.

“A person’s E.Q. or Emotional Quotient provides information to their ability to recognising human emotions and reacting appropriately to them. Scientists have shown that an emotionally intelligent person is more adaptive to a stressful environment and more productive in their work. Eighty per cent of success is contributed by E.Q and only 20% from their intelligence quotient (I.Q),” explained Dr. Priya.

Developing mindfulness to enhancing E.Q. has undoubtedly many benefits for working individuals. Researchers from the University of Bonn showed in 2014 that people with higher E.Q.s manage work stress better and earn more compared to their less EQ-savvy counterparts.

Now, we all know that higher E.Q.s also auger well for distressed tummies everywhere.

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