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Stress, Gastrointestinal Problems and Probiotics

Most people who are in stressful situations are usually reminded to take extra care of their health. A lot of literature already exist about the effects of stress in a person’s mental health. Some, because of not being able to manage their stress, develop anxiety disorders or even depression. However, not a lot of people are aware of psychosomatic health problems which are mostly caused by a lengthened exposure to stressful events or situations. Individuals who have highly pressured work settings, long-term relationship problems, persistent financial worries, and chronic loneliness not only experience depression or insomnia but also make themselves prone to having diabetes, cancer, heart diseases and gastrointestinal problems. Psychosomatic illnesses are simply described as problems of other organ systems of the body resulting from psychological activities or reactions. One may wonder why something psychological may actually cause a physical manifestation. There should be a factor that mediates between these two systems to enable a cause-and-effect relationship; and this connection, according to existing studies, is made by the nervous system.

To understand how the nervous system connects psychological events and physical manifestations in the form of illnesses or diseases, the case of gastrointestinal problems resulting from chronic stress will be used as an example. Just today, it was announced over the news that the former prime minister of Japan was hospitalized due to gastroenteritis. According to his doctors, his illness resulted from extreme stress and exhaustion. Gastroenteritis is defined as the inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract which includes the stomach and the intestines. When a person experiences extreme or chronic stress, immune factors such as cytokines, neurotransmitters such as serotonin, and digestive acids such as protease are produced. Cytokines are components that cause inflammation in areas of the body with infection, serotonin affects contraction of smooth muscles, and protease controls protein digestion. These three, then, affect the gastrointestinal system causing inflammation, spastic stomach contractions and burning. The nervous system triggers the production of these substances when stressful events pose feelings or emotions similar to that of being threatened.

During stressful events, adherence of harmful bacteria to cells within the lining of the stomach are also increased. Because of these bacteria, the immune system will then be triggered further. However, according to a recent study conducted among rats, ingestion of probiotics can decrease the “stickiness” of bacteria within the stomach and prevent the immune activation. The probiotics, also called as “for life” bacteria, compete for space in the stomach with the harmful bacteria and decrease the inflammatory responses. These effects of probiotics, therefore, make it a good possible treatment for gastrointestinal problems caused by chronic stress.

In summary, this article talks about stress, mainly being a psychological occurrence, does not only impose a threat for possible psychological problems resulting from it. Moreover, stress also causes physical illnesses such as gastrointestinal problems through influencing the nervous system to activate certain reactions within the body. Certain reactions cause changes within the stomach which heighten its vulnerability to harmful bacteria. Probiotics, being bacteria that are not harmful and can be used against harmful bacteria, can then be used as treatment for gastrointestinal problems.