We all know that stress is often felt in the gut – from that queasy feeling you get in the pit of your stomach before an exam, to the searing cramps you experience after a traumatic event. It’s even in our lexicon – ‘gut feeling’, ‘gut wrenching’. Beyond being purely anecdotal, several studies have now clearly demonstrated this link between the brain and the body.
Here we focus on a few important ways stress can impact upon the digestive system, along with some simple tips to better support your gut as you navigate the stresses and strains of modern life.
Understanding the gut-brain connection
The brain and the gut are directly connected and in constant communication – so it makes sense that stress directly impacts upon the function of our digestive system. In fact, experts have realized that stress impacts every aspect of the digestive process – including swallowing, the release of enzymes which break down food and the categorization of food as nutrient-rich or waste product.
These changes are likely due to the release of so-called ‘stress hormone’ cortisol when we are experiencing mentally challenging events, resulting in altered physiological states such as rapid breathing, elevated heart rate, high blood pressure and muscle tension.
Symptoms we experience when stress affects the digestive system
High levels of cortisol in the blood during the activation of the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response include:
*Heartburn (due to increased stomach acid)
*Diarrhea and constipation
Over time, prolonged stress can cause some increasingly common conditions to develop – such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD and Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GER). Serious symptoms are often preceded by low-level ‘tummy troubles’ like bloating and intermittent bouts of constipation or diarrhea, so if these symptoms persist over time, it’s important not to ignore them and consult a medical professional to discuss the impact of stress on your digestive health.
In the past, this sophisticated system would have allowed us to evade danger, but along the way we’ve developed a sensitivity to stress which causes it to activate almost constantly for individuals who live particularly busy or stressful lifestyles.
Tips and support for stressed-out gut
Alongside medically supervised treatment there are a number of lifestyle changes you can make to reduce the impact of stress on your digestive health.
Keep it moving: Physical activity helps to relieve tension in the body and triggers the release of a variety of chemicals in the brain include endorphins and dopamine, which can act as natural stress relievers. Aerobic exercise and strength training have been shown to lower levels of stress in controlled studies. If you’re struggling with a flare-up of stress-related gut issues, gentle movement like yoga can help to calm the mind and soothe the digestive system.
Talk about it: If you suspect your stress-related gut issues may be related to a specific traumatic event, or you’d like dedicated support to manage everyday stress, talking therapies may be a positive first step. In a 2017 study on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), patients with IBD reported better quality of life and lower levels of depression and anxiety after a three-month treatment plan. All talking therapies can be useful – sometimes simply sharing your worries with a friend can restore calm in a difficult situation.
Eat well: A nourishing, balanced diet is absolutely key when it comes to tackling gut issues. Even when the root cause may be psychological, eating well is still your first defense against the development of digestive disorders. Focus on a wholefoods diet rich in protein, fruits and vegetables and wholegrains. Several studies have shown that stress can affect our food choices, increasing our preference for foods high in fat, sugar and salt (which then worsen digestive symptoms). Some foods have actually been shown to help lower stress – including those rich in omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium and vitamin C. If you have been diagnosed with a condition such as IBS, IBD or GER, consult with a medical professional before changing your diet and seek help from a specialist nutritional therapist.
Support your gut flora: The billions of microscopic bacteria in your gut are responsible not only for effective digestion, but can also influence your overall health in many other ways. High quality pre- and pro-biotics can help to restore and maintain a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut, aiding digestion and reducing unpleasant symptoms like bloating and cramps.
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