If You Read One Article About Stress and Gut Health Read This One
If you have ever “gotten butterflies” from seeing a special person, or had a “gut-wrenching” feeling from a sad event or “felt nauseous” before an important meeting you know that the brain-gut connection is incredibly strong. The connection between our gut and our brain is far more intimate than most people think. The gastrointestinal (GI) tract is sensitive to emotions. Stress and gut health are particularly related.
- Stress can have a physical toll on your health, mainly your gut.
- Maintaining unhealthy coping behaviors because of stress has serious long term gut defects.
- Address the root of your gut problems by managing your stress with small activities that keep you calm.
There have been many studies that link stress to physical ailments. Stress affects not only our GI system, but also the musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, nervous, and reproductive systems as well. Our bodies are capable of handling small doses of stress, but long term stress wreaks havoc on our bodies.
When stressed, we are hyper aware of our bodies because stress is a fight or flight response. This means that our breathing changes, muscles tense, heart rate increases, hormones change, all in an attempt to get us out of danger. Throughout human history stress has kept us safe, for example these physical changes are all great if we have to run from a tiger. However, now normal everyday occurrences like work, school, bills, social media, COVID-19 (... it's a long list) cause us to often be in a “stressed state” for days, months, even years at a time.
Stress and gut health share an even stronger link when you consider behavior. When stressed, individuals might eat significantly more or less, increase their alcohol consumption or increase their tobacco use. All of these things directly relate to our gut health.
“Comfort foods” like ice cream, pizza, cheese, fried chicken etc, are obviously bad because they are packed with fat and low on nutrients. However, the effects of unhealthy foods over a long period are worse than just putting on a few extra pounds. Binge eating unhealthy foods destroys your microbiome. Healthy bacteria will be starved of the nutrients they need to survive and without them you will likely feel even worse both physically and mentally. The same is true of increasing alcohol and tobacco, both are basically poison to your body.
Stress and gut health: going down
Our GI tract starts with our esophagus, the tube connecting our mouths and stomach, and here is where problems relating stress and gut health begin. You might be familiar with the feeling of not being able to eat while stressed, often this starts with swallowing. If you are swallowing at a different rate than normal, you might introduce more air into your GI tract. This leads to bloating, burping and gas.
When air is trapped within the GI system it can also lead to immense pain in the abdomen. In rare cases large amounts of stress can also cause spasms in the esophagus which are similar in feeling to a heart attack.
Our stomach contains hundreds of millions of neurons that are in constant communication with our brains. Stress can directly affect this brain-gut communication, and may trigger pain, bloating, and other stomach discomfort.
Stress and gut health are also related in the sense that they can cause pre existing issues to be felt more intensely. In addition to the myriad of neurons the gut also is home to millions of bacteria that are also known to influence mood. Including prebiotics and probiotics in your diet might be able to help ease the relationship between stress and gut health by increasing the number of healthy gut bacteria inside your stomach. A collective review of 15 studies looking at the link between probiotics and mental health found that adding probiotics to the diet can improve anxiety, depression, autism, OCD, and memory.
Contrary to popular belief, stress does not cause ulcers or increase stomach acid. However, as we have previously discussed, stress can have an influence over our behaviors which do lead to these issues. Alcohol and tobacco are a huge component in the formation of stomach ulcers, and stomach acid is increased with the addition of fatty foods.
Have you ever tried to poop while stressed and to your despair couldn't do so? Well, the bowels are just another major part of the GI tract that stress can really mess up. Stress can affect how quickly or slowly food moves through our body and what nutrients we can absorb. This can lead to constipation, diarrhea, pain, bloating, gas and general discomfort in the bowels.
Additionally stress can weaken the barrier between the intestines and gut which lead to bacteria in places they shouldn't be. These out of place bacteria are taken care of by our immune system, however constant low need for inflammatory action can lead to chronic symptoms.
Stress and gut health: finding relief
The main issue with western medicine is that it focuses on resolving symptoms as opposed to the root problem. This means that we often look to relieve our tummy issues by taking Tums, ibuprofen, Alka Seltzer etc. Even though there is a huge amount of research that directly relates stress to our physical issues, it seems easier to go for a quick fix to our immediate problems.
However, these quick fixes can often make the problems even worse. As cliche as it sounds, most health problems can be remedied through diet, exercise and proper sleep. Eliminating stress entirely is impossible, but there are many techniques that have been proven to help, here are a few options you can try today:
- Go for a walk outside - Walking for even a few minutes, especially in the sun can help to clear your mind a bit. Any exercise at all releases endorphins in your brain which are there to make you feel better, give you more energy and reduce stress.
- Do some yoga - Yoga is proven to relieve stress, by engaging in the combined movement, meditation and controlled breathing involved in yoga you can quickly reduce your heart rate and promote relaxation throughout the body. Yoga is even shown to improve sleep. The best part about yoga is that you don't need to have any training, there are very simple flows like this 10 minute routine that pretty much anyone can do.
- Clean something - Got a pile of laundry or dishes that you've been putting off? DO IT! If that seems like alot start by making your bed. Having a clean/uncluttered living environment can make it much easier to focus on other tasks while also giving you a feeling of accomplishment. When we are stressed, it is extremely hard to do complicated tasks. When we are able to complete noticeable/easy tasks it gives us a boost of dopamine that can reduce stress and make doing other tasks easier.
Stress is no bueno. It affects every part of our bodies, especially our gut. Gut problems also can induce more stress. If we regulate the bacteria in our gut, invoke healthy and regular bowel movements and promote overall homeostasis of our microbiome, we can remove a huge stressor. Vice versa, reducing stress can also regulate the bacteria in our gut, invoke healthy and regular bowel movements and promote overall homeostasis of our microbiome.
The interconnectedness of our brain and gut is undeniable. By reducing stress and feeding our bodies the proper nutrients we can improve our gut and mental health. The nature of stress is well stressful, so start small. Make little healthy changes to your routine and the effects will snowball.
Written by Kiana St. Onge