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How stress affects the gut

What is stress

Most of us have felt and would recognise what stress is. Usually we experience this when we are under the pump, have a lot going on, are given a tight deadline to adhere to or something unexpected happens in our life that derails our normal plans. Common emotions that can spring up from these events are anxiety, anger, sadness, frustration or even complete denial of the situation (one of the most detrimental but sadly common responses to stress). This denial doesn’t get rid of the stress, it actually leaves it lingering under the surface, leading to some of the things we are going to talk about in a moment.

When the body perceives stress it releases cortisol and adrenaline to help respond to the situation. The human body has been designed quite well in this sense. When these two chemicals are released it triggers a cascade of changes to help us deal with the stressful situation. Our pupils dilate, our heart rate and blood pressure increases, our bowels, reproductive organs and bladder cease normal functioning, our senses are heightened, and our breathing quickens.

For early humans a stressful situation would be something along the lines of a neighbouring tribe invading our land, a wild animal attacking us or our food supply spoiling before winter. Pretty serious stuff that required us to get into action and rectify quickly. Dilated pupils would have helped us to see the attacking tiger, the shutting down of our reproductive organs stops more bodies to feed during a famine, and an increased heart rate improves blood flow to our limbs to prepare to fight. It all makes sense.

However, if we think about replying to an endless barrage of emails, reading the daily news or a verbal disagreement with a loved one, most of those bodily responses are completely unnecessary. But our body doesn’t know that. Stress in the modern world might also look like excessive coffee consumption which in turn increases our cortisol, regular high intensity exercise, or malnutrition from junk food rather than no food. These things are not emergencies but the body perceives them that way.

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.

● Sleep: 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.

● Fatigue: 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.

● Brain fog: 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.

● Mood: 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.

● Menstrual changes: 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).

And of course gut changes!

How does it affect the gut

● 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.

● Microbiome: Stress restricts blood flow to the digestive system which can compromise the integrity of the gut lining. This leaves the gut vulnerable to infections and imbalances to the microbiome (the bacterial environment within the body). Our microbiome helps to keep our digestive processes in check so when this occurs we can experience all manner of digestive upsets such as bloating, reflux, diarrhoea, pain and gas.

● Reduced digestive secretions: As mentioned earlier, when the body perceives stress it shuts down functions in the body that are deemed non-essential for immediate survival, such as digesting food. In acute emergencies this might look like vomiting or diarrhoea, however, with most “everyday stress” this looks more like indigestion and bloating due to food just sitting in the stomach undigested.

● 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.

What can we do about it

● Stress support: It seems obvious but getting a handle on your stress is key to long-term digestive health. I’m a huge fan of daily meditation but other mindfulness activities such as breathing exercises or getting out in nature can also be wonderful for the nervous system. 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.

● 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.

● 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.

● Herbs: Incorporating herbal teas such as chamomile, ginger and peppermint can settle overactive guts, nausea and discomfort. 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.

● 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.

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