The ‘do it all’ generation of females is feeling the strain, with working women far more stressed than men. Women aged between 35 and 54 – who are likely to be juggling many roles including breadwinner, mother, a carer for elderly parents, and homemaker – experience significantly higher stress levels than men, according to latest UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) statistics.
In addition, the American Psychological Association says men and women report different reactions to stress, both physically and mentally. They attempt to manage stress in very different ways. Women are also more likely than men to report that their stress levels are on the rise.
Almost half of all women surveyed said their stress has increased over the past five years. They are more likely to report that money and the economy are sources of stress than men, and they are more likely to experience physical and emotional symptoms of stress than men, such as having had a headache, having felt as though they could cry, or having had an upset stomach or indigestion.
What are the implications for women’s health given the effects of stress on the body? Stress can cause a range of gastrointestinal problems including cramping, bloating, inflammation, and a loss of appetite. In addition, women can experience physiological changes, like a heightened state of awareness, faster breathing and heart rates, elevated blood pressure, a rise in blood cholesterol, and an increase in muscle tension.
“When stress activates the fight-or-flight response in your central nervous system, it can affect your digestive system by causing your oesophagus to spasm, increasing stomach acid and possibly aggravating indigestion and acid reflux, and may make you feel nauseous or give you diarrhoea or constipation,” says Prof Jose Ramos, Head of HPB Surgery, Wits University Donald Gordon Medical Centre. “It can also exacerbate gastrointestinal disorders, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), peptic ulcers and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)”.
Stress may also cause people to reach for the bottle, as alcohol can seem to make you more relaxed at the end of a difficult day. However, excessive alcohol intake can aggravate gastrointestinal disorders even more.
Are you finding yourself regularly buying over-the-counter (OTC) medicines to relieve persistent digestive system discomfort caused by stress? “It’s possible that your pancreas is not functioning properly,” says Prof Ramos. “Various diseases can cause pancreatic damage resulting in dysfunction of this organ, which may manifest as pancreatic exocrine insufficiency (PEI) or diabetes. These are serious and potentially life-threatening conditions. The pancreas is an organ located behind the stomach which plays an important role in gastrointestinal health, but not much is known about it. That’s why it’s advisable to seek advice from your doctor or pharmacist if you have concerns about your health.”
“The main clinical manifestation of PEI is loose, smelly and oily stools as a result of maldigestion of dietary fat, resulting in malnutrition and weight loss. However, pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT), a mixture of digestive enzymes in the form of a capsule, is available not only to relieve maldigestion-related symptoms but also to achieve a normal nutritional status and consequently improve quality of life. PERT is, however, only required if the pancreas is diseased and not secreting the required digestive enzymes.” says Prof Ramos.
Healthcare providers know that when their patients experience symptoms of illness, the first instinct is to type those symptoms into a search engine. While they acknowledge the convenience of the internet and sympathise with people who are looking for answers, there are some dangers when it comes to relying on ‘Dr Google’ for your diagnosis.
“Seeking health advice online isn’t always a bad thing, but it’s important to remember that online sources vary widely in credibility, with many claims not being evidence based,” says Prof Ramos. “There’s also a difference between the information accessible to doctors and the online information available to the general public. Furthermore, your healthcare provider should have a better understanding of, and insight into the different manifestations of various illnesses and can help put information into context.”
If you’re worried about your stress levels and the digestive problems that stress may be causing you, speak to your doctor or pharmacist to determine whether you could be experiencing pancreatic exocrine insufficiency (PEI) or another gastrointestinal (GI) condition.