Have you ever been late for work or an appointment when you are suddenly stuck in a traffic jam? Your heart starts pounding and you just want to scream. Stress is an ugly monster that rears its head far too often in our daily lives. In this fast-paced, crazy world we live in, it’s almost impossible not to be over-stressed.
Working too hard, overtraining, not getting enough sleep, and not taking time for yourself, are a few of the common stress-inducing culprits. These are the obvious lifestyle factors. What you might not have considered is how a poor diet can greatly impact your level of stress.
As it turns out, stress plays a major role in one of our body’s most important organ systems, the gut. If you are suffering from stomach pains, acid reflux, common indigestion issues, this might be due to your gut responding to stress. The gut is very vulnerable to chronic and acute stress.
When you are stressed, the gut undergoes stress-related changes in gut motility, gastric secretion, barrier function, sensitivity, and blood flow. There is even evidence that your gut microbiome may respond to stress host signals.
If you would like a general overview of exactly how this works, check out Dr. Philip Oubre’s Youtube video. He is a functional medicine practitioner that explains how stress can be causing your indigestion, reflux, and bloating.
How Stress Impacts Your Gut Function
Chris Kresser explains on his ADAPT Training website how stress and stomach pain are related and just how important it is to manage your stress. Stress is not only responsible for stomach issues, but can it can also cause cortisol dysregulation, weight gain, sleep disorders, and even decrease your life span.
The whole brain-gut relationship is a rather intricate process. Our gut microbiome is covered with a network of nerve fibers called the myenteric plexus. These neuron cells are directly influenced by signals sent from our brain. This creates a link between our gut and nervous system. If you have had a “gut feeling” that’s your brain and your gut having a conversation.
Biochemical Changes in the Gut from Stress
When your body is under a great deal of stress, there are biochemical changes that immediately impact your gut function. Peptides are responsible for regulating the body’s response to stress. They have a huge impact on the gut in the following ways:
• Controls inflammation
• Increases gut permeability
• Contributes to visceral hypersensitivity
• Increases perception of pain
• Modulates gut motility
• Stimulates the section of cortisol from the adrenal glands
What this all boils down to is that stress not only affects the function of the gut, but it also can cause a change to the microbiota. Mice who were subjected to increased stress levels showed an overgrowth of specific types of bacteria. In addition, their gut microbe diversity decreased. This made them more susceptible to dangerous pathogens. This has been correlated with what happens when humans experience a great amount of stress.
Long-term exposure to chronic stress may have serious consequences. Some studies have suggested that over time, stress can slow down the small intestine which results in an overgrowth of bacteria. It also can compromise the intestinal barrier. What does this lead to? It may result in a range of gastrointestinal diseases like reflux disease, peptic ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and leaky gut syndrome, to name a few.
Gut Health and Your Emotions
We discussed the term “gut feeling”, but the emotions emanating from your gut go way beyond that term. Harvard Medical School has explored the gut-brain connection and links anxiety to stomach problems. Have you ever had certain situations make you feel nauseous or had a gut-wrenching experience? Even the term “having butterflies in your stomach” relates your gastrointestinal tract to your emotions. The whole range of emotions, sadness, anger, anxiety, happiness, can influence your gut.
Your brain has a huge effect on your stomach and intestines. Simply thinking about eating makes those stomach juices flow before the food arrives. This is a two-way connection. Just like the brain sends signals to the gut, the intestine can also signal the brain when it’s in distress. This means when you have stomach or intestinal issues, this can produce stress, anxiety, or depression.
In fact, your brain and gut really are so intimately connected that if you are trying to heal a gut issue, you should factor in the roles of stress and emotion. This is especially true with a person who has gastrointestinal issues for no apparent physical reason. Let’s take a closer look at how your gut responds when you are anxious.
Anxiety and Your Gut Health
Medical News Today reported about a study in China involving 1,500 participants and 21 studies that looked at microbiota and its effect on anxiety. After the results, they emphasized that doctors should not ignore the role of gut flora when looking for mental health solutions.
Understanding how closely linked the gut and brain are, it might be easier to understand why you might feel nauseous before giving a big presentation. Just because you might feel stomach pain when you are under a lot of stress doesn’t mean that the pain is “all in your head”.
Physical and psychological factors combine to create the sensation of pain and other gut issues. Your mind influences the physiology of the gut and the symptoms. What this means is that stress can alter movement in the GI tract, creating inflammation and possibly making you more susceptible to infection.
There is some research that suggests that those with functional GI issues may feel pain more than people with a healthy gut. This is due to the possibility that their brains are more sensitive to the pain signals coming from the GI tract. This creates the vicious cycle of making the pain that is there, seem even worse.
You would think that some people with GI conditions would improve with therapy to reduce stress or with the treatment of depression and anxiety. This actually has worked. Thirteen studies concluded that patients who combined psychological treatments with medical treatments had a greater improvement in their digestive disorders than those who only used conventional medicine.
Anxiety and Digestion and the Gut-Brain Connection
If you are experiencing stomach and intestinal problems like abdominal cramps, heartburn, and loose stools, could these symptoms be related to stress? There are symptoms you should keep an eye out for that might mean you are suffering from too much stress. Take a look at the list and decide it is time to develop strategies for making your gut healthier.
• Stiff and tight muscles, especially in the shoulders and neck
• Difficulty sleeping
• Tremors or shaking
• Loss of sexual interest
• Sudden changes in weight
• Difficulty concentrating
• Teeth grinding
• Increased smoking
• A change in food or alcohol consumption
• Lack of desire to be around people
• Increased desire to be around people
• Increased talking
• Brooding over stressful situations
• Poor memory
• Increased feelings of tension or pressure
• Difficulty relaxing
• Anger easily
• Bouts of crying
• Difficulty concentrating
• Lack of sense of humor
• Feelings of indecision
How Fiber Can Reverse Stress Damage
A new study reported by Medical News Today found evidence that a diet high in fiber may help protect us from the harmful effects of stress. Since the gut contains more bacteria than cells in our body, it is no wonder that these organisms are so influential on our health.
It’s time to introduce the term short-chain fatty acids (SFCA) and the role they play in gut bacteria. SFCA’s job is to digest fiber. Then, the cells in the colon use the SCFA to make energy thereby improving gut health. Researchers found that adding SFCA to mice’s guts reduced stress and anxiety. Now research is studying the role SCFAs have in influencing stress-related gut damage in humans.
Leaky gut is when the intestine’s permeability increases as a result of high levels of stress over a long period of time. When this occurs, particles like bacteria and undigested food enter the bloodstream. This is bad. The result is damaging gut inflammation. Fortunately, adding SCFAs to your diet can reduce a leaky gut caused by severe stress.
Now we know why fiber is so important in our diet and the role SCFAs play in gut health. Eating a diet high in fiber will prompt bacteria to increase their production of SCFA. This increases our gut’s natural defense against damage caused by stress. Hopefully, more research will be conducted on developing microbiota therapies for stress disorders.
Best Foods for Stress Relief
Eating Well understands how stress can take a toll on the body’s natural defenses and offers seven foods to help relieve stress-induced anxiety. High calorie and sugary foods only pretend to be comfort foods. They actually do damage to gut bacteria. Try these truly anti-stress foods and see if you don’t feel better.
1. Go nuts! Stress depletes our vitamin B and nuts are loaded with them. B vitamins are responsible for keeping our neurotransmitters happy. They regulate our fight-or-flight response. Nuts also contain potassium which can lower blood pressure and reduce the strain on your heart caused by stress.
2. Pop those peppers. Red peppers are best and have almost twice as much vitamin C as oranges. Studies indicate that people who take high doses of vitamin C before stressful activities had lower blood pressure and a faster recovery period than those who didn’t take vitamin C. Load your diet with food rich in vitamin C will help you cope.
3. Salmon, salmon. That’s right. Eat it twice a week. Rich in omega-3s and DHA, wild-caught salmon will help you keep your wits when things get hairy. People who took daily omega-3 supplements with both DHA and EPA for 12 weeks reduced their anxiety by 20 percent. Eating 2 servings a week of oily fish like salmon will help boost your mood.
4. Eat lots of spinach. Spinach is full of stress-relieving magnesium. Most people are magnesium deficient and have high C-reactive protein levels (CRP). Researchers have discovered that people with elevated CRP have a greater risk of depression and are more stressed-out. Magnesium is also responsible for regulating cortisol and blood pressure.
5. Eat your oatmeal. Oatmeal is comfort food and it helps your brain make serotonin, a destressing neurotransmitter. Carb-eaters are less stressed, but you must eat complex carbs like oatmeal which are digested slowly and don’t create spiked blood sugar.
6. Say “YES” to chocolate. Great news for chocolate lovers. Dark chocolate will actually lower cortisol and reduce fight-or-flight impulses. Go ahead and grab a bar once a day but for the best results, find organic chocolate that has at least 70% cocoa.
7. Tea time. Tea drinkers destress faster and have lower cortisol levels than non-tea drinkers. Non-caffeinated herbal teas, especially those with chamomile, peppermint, or ginger, can be soothing to your gut and help calm the nervous system.
Some Tips to De-Stress
The GI Society understands that some people handle stress better than others. However, when stress affects your health and emotional well-being, it may be time to take a look at your gut health. Stress can take its toll on your digestive tracts, can cause aches and pains, weight fluctuations, and alter your mental functions.
Find a way to deal with stress and make lifestyle changes that will lower your stress levels, help you cope, and recover from stressful events more quickly. Some tips to reduce anxiety and de-stress include practicing deep breathing and be mindful of blowing small incidents out of proportion.
Try to monitor your negative thoughts. Replace them with positive but realistic ideas. If you have problems with thinking positive, go for a walk or exercise. Exercise is a great stress reducer. Just taking time to yourself is helpful. Learn to laugh more, say “no” more often, and make good food choices. Remember, a healthy gut and a happy brain go hand-in-hand.