Site Logotype

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 always hear that long term stress isn’t great for the body, but how exactly does this impact our digestive health?

Firstly, 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.

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.

So what does that mean for the gut?

1. Stress reduces the amount of hydrochloric acid 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 (HCl) 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 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 undesirable bugs, aka pro-inflammatory bacteria. Pro-inflammatory bacteria have a cell wall made from lipopolysaccharides (LPS) or endotoxins. As the bacteria break down in their normal life cycle, these endotoxins 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.

That’s four really impactful ways that stress can alter the landscape of our microbiome!

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

Mindfulness practices 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 uncomfortable to sit with yourself everyday, and meditation is about getting used to being uncomfortable. 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.

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. Plus, it’s 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.

If you are experiencing stress or digestive symptoms and want individualised support, book in for a FREE base chat with Brooke 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