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How Does Stress Affect Your Gut?

Effects of Stress on the Gut

We know that stress can have an effect on our happiness and wellbeing, but it can also play a significant role in the health of our gut and lead to a number of digestive issues. If you frequently find yourself feeling stressed or anxious, here’s what you should know about the connection between our brain and gut:

Gut-Brain Connection

The gut-brain connection is also referred to as the enteric nervous system (ENS) and is a complex network of connections between our brain and gut. These connections are the reason why, when we find ourselves feeling stressed, we can also feel our stomach “in knots” or feel “sick to our stomach.”

The vagus nerve--the longest cranial nerve in the body--is the means by which the brain and gut communicate. It’s roles include: aiding in digestion, gut mobility, and sending signals from the gut to the brain. But when we experience stress, our gut microbiome may become unbalanced and digestive issues can result. In order to keep both our gut and brain healthy, the gut microbiome and ENS must communicate unencumbered with one another.

Stress and the Gut

When we feel stress, a fight-or-flight response is triggered in our body. This causes our central nervous system to start pumping more blood to our heart and muscles and less to our abdomen and gut. As a result, digestion can slow or even stop and one may experience constipation, nausea, and/or indigestion.

Stress also causes inflammation in the digestive system which can affect our gut microflora and potentially lead to digestive issues such as indigestion and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Chronic Stress

Prolonged effects of stress on the gut can include, but are not limited to:

  • Diarrhea

  • Constipation

  • Bloating

  • Nausea

  • Cramping

  • GERD

  • Peptic ulcers

  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

  • Overgrowth of “bad bacteria” in the gut

Coping Mechanisms

While stress can wreak havoc on our gut, luckily, there are a number of ways to cope and reduce overall stress levels:

Prioritize sleep. Sleep deficiency can lead to poor health outcomes. Aim to get eight to nine restful hours of sleep.

Exercise. Thirty minutes of daily exercise has been shown to have anti-inflammatory benefits, boost one’s immune system, as well as provide a buffer against stress.

Eat more healthily. Eating whole, unprocessed foods can help alleviate stress by stabilizing one’s blood sugar and preventing stress-related eating.

Talk to someone. Talking with a friend, family member, or therapist can help release pent up stress and emotions. Journaling may also help.

Spend time outdoors. Research shows spending time in nature can, not only reduce stress levels, but improve immune function, reduce inflammation, and lower both blood pressure and cortisol levels.

Meditate. Meditation has been shown to decrease stress, anxiety, and depression. Even just ten minutes a day can make a difference.

The Takeaway

It’s nearly impossible for us to avoid stress in our day-to-day lives. Thus, it’s imperative to find ways to manage our stress levels or we may jeopardize our health and wellbeing.

If you are currently experiencing gastrointestinal issues, and believe stress may be to blame, Total Body Health can help you restore your health. Call today for your free consultation.

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