Have you ever had the feeling of butterflies in your stomach or a lack of appetite when you’re under stress? Then you’ve felt the gut-wrenching effects of stress playing out on your digestive system.
Soothing your gut in times of distress isn’t always easy, but there are ways you can take control and get things back on track. Let’s explore why symptoms occur and how we can remedy them.
Stress doesn’t just affect our mental wellbeing – it also has a mountain of physiological effects too. We all have times of stress, and we all experience it differently, but more often than not, you’ll feel it in your gut.
If there is a stark reduction in blood flow and oxygen to the stomach due to heightened blood pressure, it can lead to painful cramping and inflammation. There’s also wide research that shows stress reduces the numbers of colonizing gut bacteria, creating an overall imbalance of the gut microbiome (trust me, this isn’t a good thing). Our microbes, unfortunately, can then stay in a stress response as a result.
Stress also does a great job of halting the acid pumps within your stomach. If this is the case, you may experience multiple symptoms such as bloating, indigestion and wind. Not only that, it can potentially aggravate pre-existing gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
There’s a deep connection between your gut and your brain. These two like to keep in contact, either chemically through neurotransmitters, such as serotonin (the happy chemical), or physically via a direct line called the vagus nerve. If you become chronically stressed, it can weaken your digestive process and change your microbiome. When your microbiome is comprised, it then affects your ability to cope with stressful situations, creating a cycle that makes it hard for anyone to deal with stressful situations.
The neurotransmitters within your body are mostly produced by the microbes in your gut, so if a disruption within the gut microbiome happens, it can lead to a reduction in neurotransmitters, resulting in potential anxiety and depression.
There is currently a great wealth of research that links gut health to mood issues like depression and anxiety. So, your gastrointestinal symptoms might be why you’re feeling so low.
If you were face to face with a tiger, what would you do? You’d either get out of there as fast as you could, or freeze – two totally primal actions – and commonly referred to as fight or flight (or flight or freeze). This state is another contributor in impairing proper digestion.
When we are presented with a potentially threatening situation, the body’s autonomic nervous system – also referred to as the sympathetic nervous system – becomes activated due to the sudden release of hormones. Your adrenal glands become triggered, releasing adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol. During this process, your body favours the organs needed for either running or fighting, such as your lungs, heart and muscles. In doing so, it diverts blood away from your gut, slowing down your digestion, resulting in potential digestive problems.
Although I don’t think we’re going to come across a tiger walking down the street, we often find ourselves in a low-grade fight or flight mode (think late for a meeting at work or hard conversation with a client or team member). As nutrition and health expert, Angela Pifer, mentions in Season One of The Shift, “We all are eating on the go, running with our hair on fire, not getting enough sleep, staring at our blue screen all day long, and any moment that we might have any break to actually breathe, we got to check email.”
We encourage this fight or flight response and it has ingrained itself within our daily routines.
It’s clear that stress can affect your gut health drastically if it’s left unchecked. Here are a few things you can do to reduce stress in your daily life.
- Relax and rejuvenate. We all love a little R & R, and it’s a proven way to get your gut microbiome and mental state back in line.
- Declutter your surroundings, for example, your bag and house. When you reduce the mess around you, you’ll be able to focus better.
- Take stock of what is stressing you. Ask yourself “do I need to be stressed because of this?” You’ll be surprised how often the answer is “no.”
- Seek professional help. This can be either psychological, to help with your mental wellbeing or a doctor who can help you regain control over your gut health.
- Probiotics are a great way to increase your beneficial gut bacteria. See a qualified practitioner to get the right type for you.
- Improve your diet. When we are stressed, sometimes we mismanage what we eat. Ensure you are maintaining a healthy balanced diet, full of nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables.
- Generate calm through meditation, yoga and gentle exercise.
When there is an imbalance, things can become cyclical in their symptoms. Stress can lead to gut issues, which leads you to feeling low, which leads to further prolonged gut issues. Take the time for some self-care, and allow your gut to heal.
GO DEEPER: Check out The Shift podcast series for more insights on gut health, what impacts it and what you can avoid.