How stress wreaks havoc on your gut – and what to do about it

Stress and gut blog image

You may have read that more and more scientific studies are showing that there is a proven connection between the mind and the gut, but what does this mean? 

Well, it’s likely that you have experienced the mind-gut connection countless times, such as when you have felt as though your stomach has been ‘in knots’ or you’ve had ‘butterflies’ before an interview, a test or other stressful event. Or, perhaps you feel nauseous when worried, or experience acid reflux or diarrhoea when stressed? 

The link between the gut and stress

Simply put, the gastrointestinal system is very sensitive to our wide array of emotions. It is very common for people to experience digestive and intestinal distress when they feel sad, anxious, stressed or angry.

The impact of stress on the stomach goes far beyond indigestion, loss of appetite or a sudden urge to dash to the loo. In recent years, doctors have uncovered a remarkably complex connection between the brain and the digestive system.

The entire system is extremely sensitive to our moods. Experts now see stress as a major player in a wide range of digestive problems, including irritable bowel syndrome, indigestion, and heartburn.

By understanding how stress affects our bodies, we open new avenues for prevention and treatment of many conditions, so let’s delve a little deeper.

How does the body cope with stress?

When we are under stress, our body switches into ‘fight or flight’ mode, and this activates our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). Under this state, our body diverts blood supply and resources into helping us to produce adrenaline and cortisol so that we can either fight or (take) flight. This is a remarkable evolutionary tactic developed to enable escape from a threat.

Back in prehistoric times, this ‘fight or flight’ mode was initiated so that we could run away from predators. Switching to our SNS means that all our resources and blood supply are diverted to our brain, heart and muscles, and away from our digestive system. Digestion is not seen as a priority and is therefore suppressed. This allows enough adrenaline and cortisol production so we can escape. Once the threat has gone, our body returns to its ‘rest and digest’ state.

The problem with the world that we live in today is that our body cannot differentiate whether the stress is coming from a predator or from ongoing work stress, health issues, family problems, etc.  A low-grade state of stress, where we never truly switch off, and end up constantly living in this ‘fight or flight’ state, means that our digestion is never prioritised.

‘Rest and digest’, the opposite of ‘fight or flight’, is the state that our body is in when we are relaxed. When we are calm, the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is activated. The PNS regulates heart rate and blood pressure, keeps anxiety at bay and reduces feelings of stress; in this state, we can fully digest our food, with our stomach acid and peristalsis functioning well.

This is the state that we want to be in for the majority of the time, and why stress management is crucial for having a healthy gut and digestion.

A toilet roll

How can stress impact our gut health?

The stress response causes a number of detrimental events in your gut, including:

  • Decreased stomach acid production – this results in maldigestion and the potential presentation of IBS symptoms, such as bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhoea, reflux etc. Stomach acid is needed so that we can absorb our nutrients – without them, we may be lacking the raw material needed to produce hormones and neurotransmitters, and this can lead to hormonal imbalances, anxiety, depression etc. Stomach acid is also important because it is our immune system’s first line of defence, and if this is hindered, pathogens such as bacteria/ parasites will be able to survive the pH of the stomach and enter the small and large intestine, where they can wreak havoc and produce unpleasant symptoms. This can be one of the reasons for a candida overgrowth or a SIBO infection.
  • Decreased gut motility – in some cases, constipation can occur, meaning the system is unable to rid itself of waste, leading to bloating, gas, and/or stomach pain. It can also lead to the development or exacerbation of various gastrointestinal disorders, such as IBS, IBD, GERD, diverticular disease and more.
  • Increased gut motility – sometimes resulting in inconvenient dashes to the loo.
  • Inflammation – cortisol (the main stress hormone) is an inflammatory hormone, which means if we are continually stressed, we are constantly in an inflammatory state. Inflammation is one of the drivers of leaky gut. Once leaky gut is present, our immune system can start inappropriately reacting to random foods, and it is thought that this is one of the triggers for the onset of an autoimmune disease. Leaky gut can also cause nutrient deficiencies due to the intestinal damage it causes, and these nutrients are often the ones that can impact our digestion. For example, magnesium is needed for the peristalsis action in the bowel – without adequate levels, our gut can become sluggish and result in constipation.

What can you do to make sure stress does not impact your gut health?

Prioritise self-care. This may include some of the following:

  • Starting a new hobby that brings you joy
  • Batch cooking so you are not stressed about cooking every day
  • Doing your nails – I always find this very relaxing and satisfying, as it diverts my attention because my sole focus is on not getting nail varnish everywhere!
Manicure to reduce stress
  • Scheduling in an Epsom salt bath twice a week
  • Incorporating short 10-minute yoga sessions into your week
  • Ensuring you take a daily walk outside in nature
  • Learning to say ‘no’ more often
  • Starting a gratitude journal to help shift your mindset
  • Practising breathing exercises when you feel stressed
  • Swapping TV for reading a new book
  • Avoid eating while stressed and try to practise mindful eating
  • Sleep hygiene practices should be put into place, such as reducing blue light devices at least one hour before bed, and having a wind-down routine in place. Poor sleep can raise our cortisol levels significantly the following day, which can result in the sympathetic nervous system being activated.
Tummy calming tea
  • Swap your caffeinated beverages for herbal alternatives. Caffeine can increase our cortisol levels, which can negatively impact our gut health. Lemon balm is a great ingredient to look out for in herbal teas for its relaxing properties. The Just for Tummies ‘Tummy Tea’ is another great choice for its gut-soothing ingredients. 
  • Consider some stress-supporting supplements, such as adaptogenic herbs (Ginseng, Borage, Wild Yam, Liquorice) and medicinal mushrooms (Reishi, Lion’s Mane, Cordyceps).  Always work with a natural healthcare professional when sourcing such herbs and mushrooms.
  • Try to be organised and create a daily ‘To Do’ list to prevent you from feeling overwhelmed
Omega 3 fish oil
  • Consider supplementing with some of the Just for Tummies Omega 3 fish oil. This has anti-inflammatory properties, which will help to combat inflammation associated with excess cortisol in the body.
  • Make sure you are eating enough calories, as a calorie deficit can be a direct stressor on the body
  • Oxytocin release – this is a huge anti-stress hormone, and can be released from hugging, kissing, skin-to-skin contact, and even petting a dog has been shown to increase our oxytocin levels. I love hugging my little granddaughter, and feel such a sense of wellbeing when I’m doing it.
  • As well as supporting stress levels, give your gut a helping hand and make sure that you get enough probiotics and enzymes to break down food. Taking Just for Tummies Live Bacteria is a great way to support your gut in this way – take one capsule twice daily before meals. Remember it is a two-way street between the gut and the brain, so if you look after your gut microbes then they will look after you.

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