How does stress impact the gut?
Have you ever been struggling with digestive issues, and then gone on holiday and your problems have resolved? That is the power that stress can have on the body.
We hear that long term stress isn’t great for the body, but how exactly does this impact our digestive health?
What happens in the body when we are stressed?
Our bodies can’t tell the difference between running away from a tiger, and reading a bad email or persistent mental worry. It physically responds in the same way, and the end result is equipping the body to run away from danger.
The heart beats faster, pushing blood to the muscles, heart, and other vital organs. Pulse rate and blood pressure increase. Breath becomes more rapid. Small airways in the lungs expand, allowing as much oxygen as possible with each breath. Additional oxygen is sent to the brain, which increases alertness. Sight, hearing, and other senses become sharper. Meanwhile, adrenaline triggers the release of glucose and fats from storage in the body. These nutrients flood into the bloodstream, supplying the body with energy.
Signs and symptoms of stress
Every body will experience and respond to stress in its own unique way, however, there are some telltale signs that us practitioners will look out for.
What is considered to be good quality sleep is not taking longer than 20 minutes to fall asleep, staying asleep for the entire night or falling straight back to sleep after waking, getting a total of 7-9 hours of sleep during the night and waking up feeling refreshed. If you are finding it difficult to fall asleep, find yourself tossing and turning through the night or are just plain exhausted in the morning, this could be because of stress.
This goes hand in hand with sleep but if your sleep hasn’t changed at all, feeling fatigued can be a sign of mental and physical exhaustion. When we get to this stage, we have often gone past the initial over-excited wired phase and moved into something closer to burnout due to longer term denial of stress.
This can look like losing your train of thought, forgetting appointments or where you have put something, difficulty concentrating or even just feeling a bit hazy and not as sharp as you usually feel. Lack of sleep at night and an increase in cortisol throughout the day can make it difficult for the brain to function at its best.
Are you feeling more snappy and short tempered with your partner or family? Or are you feeling unenthused about meeting your friends or doing activities that you used to love? This can absolutely be a result of overwhelm and the mental load we carry when stressed.
Here’s the kicker – Digestion is not an essential function when it comes down to acute survival. When we are stressed the body diverts blood away from the gut to feed the muscles and the brain so we can run away or fight to survive the threat.
This can look like heavy periods, missed periods, irregularities in the menstrual cycle, increased cramps, and heightened PMS symptoms. As mentioned earlier, during stressful times, the body will deem it unsafe to reproduce and therefore reproductive functions begin to change (ie our period).
So what does this mean for the gut?
1. Stress reduces the amount of hydrochloric acid (HCl) and digestive enzymes that are produced when we eat something
As explained above, digestion is not an essential function. Therefore processing food becomes a low priority when stressed. With a reduction in hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes, our digestive capacity and ability to breakdown food is impacted – cue bloating & abdominal discomfort.
2. Stress has the ability to change the bacteria in the gut
HCl is as it sounds, it’s an acid. We want the stomach to be acidic. Not only does it break down food but it prevents any ‘undesirable’ bacteria from overgrowing. If we produce less HCl our stomach becomes too alkaline, which is a trigger point for reflux and is a breeding ground for the wrong types of bacteria. You can read more about reflux here.
3. Ongoing stress leads to mucosal lining inflammation
This point leads on from the higher growth of the bad bugs, aka pro-inflammatory bacteria.
Pro-inflammatory bacteria have a cell wall made from lipopolysaccharides (LPS) or endotoxins. These endo-toxins cause low-grade intestinal inflammation on the mucosa lining.
4. Stress can increase visceral hypersensitivity
Visceral hypersensitivity is an increased response to abdominal discomfort & distention, and has been a key area of research in irritable bowel syndrome. While the exact mechanisms of this are yet to be defined, what we know is that stress acts as a trigger of pain sensation.
5. Poor diet choices
I’m sure many of you understand that stress eating is a real thing. Unfortunately when we aren’t feeling our best or our life is go-go-go we tend to make poor choices. Hello take away food, chocolate and one too many wines. This can lead to blood sugar imbalances and cravings, changes to our microbiome, and inflammation to the gut lining.
6. Gut motility
The term peristalsis refers to the muscles surrounding the intestinal tract squeezing and relaxing in a wave-like pattern to physically push bits of food down from our stomach into our large intestine. During times of stress, this process can either quicken resulting in loose or urgent bowel movements, or it can slow down resulting in constipation and straining.
So that’s six really impactful ways that stress can alter the landscape of our microbiome.
So what can we do about it?
How do we resolve this predicament in a world that seems to be getting faster paced each and every year?
1. Stress management techniques are key.
If we are someone who feels the sways of stress, there are mindfulness practices that help to lower stress levels in the body, and prepare us for better management of stress.
Meditation is my absolute favorite, So many people say they can’t do it and that is the whole point. It’s about getting used to being uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable to sit with yourself everyday! Learning to stick at it despite the discomfort prepares you when confronted with uncomfortable situations in your life. You’ve learnt how to breathe through it, and that helps your resilience levels when life gets tricky.
Yin yoga and journaling are also wonderful techniques. Although stress management doesn’t have to be structured! You might prefer sitting on the sand watching the ocean. Whatever helps you turn off.
If you are over-consuming caffeine (ie. more than one coffee per day) you might need to cut back. Or if you are doing HIIT classes every day, try switching up for a walk or gentle yoga classes every now and then. By removing and reducing some of your stress triggers, you are getting to the root cause.
2. Stress supporting foods
Oily fish, chia seeds, flaxseeds and walnuts: for their high omega 3 content or ability to convert into Omega-3. Omega 3 helps your body to handle stress and can directly decrease elevated cortisol levels.
Leafy greens, nuts and seeds: for their high magnesium content. Magnesium is a relaxant and directly modulates the body’s stress-response system.
Matcha powder: for its high L-theanine content. L-Theanine is an amino acid that has stress reducing properties. And an excellent replacement for coffee when stressed.
3. Stress supporting nutrients
Magnesium: our bodies use higher levels of magnesium when stressed, and low levels of magnesium intensifies stress, which creates a vicious cycle.
B Vitamins: specifically vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6 and B12, which help to maintain a healthy nervous system and support the body during times of stress.
Vitamin C: an antioxidant which can directly reduce levels of stress hormones in the blood, and is necessary for optimum function of our adrenal glands.
4. Stress supporting herbs
Adaptogens: increase the body’s resistance and adaptability to physical, emotional or biological stressors. Herbs include korean ginseng, rhodiola, schisandra, shatavari, siberian ginseng and withania.
Adrenal tonics: improve the tone and function of the adrenal glands. Herbs include licorice and rehmannia
Nervine tonics: improve the tone and function of the nervous system, helping to relax and energise. Herbs include bacopa, oats, schisandra, skullcap, and St John’s Wort.
Incorporating herbal teas such as our Happy Belly tea which is made from chamomile, cinnamon, licorice and calendula can help to settle a bloated and upset gut. An Ayurvedic digestive tea recipe of equal parts fennel seeds, coriander seeds and cumin seeds brewed slowly in water can be drunk as a daily ritual to encourage digestion and bowel regularity. In tincture form, a couple of drops of bitter herbs before eating such as gentian or dandelion root can reduce bloating and indigestion.
5. Mindful eating
It seems too simple to be effective but how we eat is just as important as what we eat. Our nervous system needs to switch over into the parasympathetic state (rest and digest) to adequately process food. One way to do this is to take three deep breaths, elongating the exhale, before eating. The longer the exhale, the more calm our mind becomes. Some other simple food hygiene practices are chewing your food thoroughly before swallowing, eating slowly and avoiding shovelling food in, not eating on the run or being distracted while eating, and savouring the smells, tastes and beauty of your food.
6. Digestive support
Apple cider vinegar can be a great starting point to get your digestive juices flowing. Having a tablespoon in a small glass of water before eating your main meals can increase gastric secretions and allow your stomach to “prepare” for incoming food. This can help to alleviate symptoms of fullness, bloating, belching and indigestion. When the apple cider vinegar isn’t quite cutting it, you might benefit from digestive enzymes or betaine hydrochloride to really promote gastric juice production and get your digestion kicked off.
7. Vagus nerve stimulation
This major nerve runs from the sides of the brain by the ears, down the throat into the chest and abdomen, ending up in the large intestine. This nerve is a direct communication channel between our gut and the brain. Interesting new research has shown that by stimulating this nerve we can positively impact this relationship. Some simple ways you can do this are gargling, humming or deep singing which essentially vibrates the vagus nerve.
If you are experiencing stress or digestive symptoms and want individualised support, book in for a FREE base chat with Brooke Schiller or Emma Drady here.
Brooke Schiller, BHSc Nat & Nut, BCom
Brooke is a qualified naturopath with a focus on digestive health, hormones and adrenal conditions.
Learn more about Brooke here
Book a session with Brooke here
Emma Drady, BHSc Nat
Hi my name is Emma and I am a Naturopath with a passion for women’s health. During my four year degree I learnt the science behind plants, a deep understanding of the functions of the human body, and the relationship between lifestyle and how it impacts on our health. I use evidence based and traditional herbal medicine, nutrition, diet and lifestyle reviews to help bring balance into your life according to your individual needs.
Book a FREE chat with Emma here.