Everything you need to know to improve your gut health and lower your stress levels.
From minor challenges to major crises, stress is a part of our daily life. While we can’t always control our circumstances, we can control how we respond to them.
Research shows that our brain and gut are infinitely connected and are in constant communication with each other (like two teenagers on Snapchat!) This direct relationship causes our gastrointestinal system to be sensitive to emotions and reactions. Reactions such as stress have a huge impact on the digestive system.
The gut-brain connection is powerful. The very thought of food can cause the stomach to start producing digestive juices and the thought of having to present in front of an audience can cause constipation or uncontrollable bowels.
When we’re stressed, our brain sends signals to release chemicals such as adrenaline, serotonin (a hormone that affects mood and is primarily found in the digestive system) and cortisol (a stress hormone). This is the stress response and is more commonly referred to as the “fight or flight” mechanism. It promotes our survival and shuts down our digestion.
Let’s face it, our bodies can’t manage stress and digest food simultaneously. After all, when your life is on the line, which is what your adrenal glands assume (they release stress hormones), why waste energy digesting food?
Most modern stressors are rarely life-threatening, but they are far more frequent and relentless.
Financial worries, relationship issues, feeling overwhelmed, job stress, being stuck in traffic, for example, all cause the body to release the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Although this is not a big issue initially, the problem arises when we don’t deal with our stress and these hormones keep releasing hour after hour.
Simply put, prolonged stress negatively affects our digestive system in numerous ways. When our digestion shuts down, it promotes inflammation, decreases blood and oxygen flow to the stomach and causes an imbalance in gut bacteria. These symptoms can then further develop into gastrointestinal disorders that include irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and irritable bowel disease (IBD).
Let’s look at how stress causes some of these digestive conditions specifically:
The esophagus is a muscular tube that connects the mouth to the stomach. The lower-esophageal sphincter (LES) is a ring of muscle that closes the stomach off from the esophagus when you’re not eating. This muscle relaxes when you’re eating to allow food to pass smoothly from the esophagus to the stomach. Once that is done it closes again so that the food in your stomach does not come back up into the esophagus.
Chronic activation of the stress response causes the LES to spasm or relax too much and thereby allows stomach acid to reflux into the esophagus. This causes irritation of the lining of the esophagus. When this happens on a continual basis, signs and symptoms of GERD develop.
IBS often results in disturbances in the balance between your brain and your gut. Activation of the stress response can cause either an overactivity of the gut leading to diarrhea and stomach churning, or it can cause the gut to slow down, resulting in constipation, gas and abdominal discomfort.
Furthermore, stress has been shown to cause dysbiosis (intestinal bacteria that have become imbalanced) and this plays a key role in someone developing IBS.
In IBD, the immune system responds incorrectly to various environmental triggers. It is characterized by chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract and this prolonged inflammation leads to damage to the GI tract.
Stress affects our gut immunity. Approximately 60-80% of our body’s immunity is housed in the gut. When our body goes through prolonged stress it wipes out a large proportion of our good gut bacteria, which ultimately leads to a weakened immune system.
In addition to that, stress produces cytokines and proteins that stimulate the immune system to fight injury or infection and thus triggers inflammation.
There are various things you can do to reduce your stress levels and improve your gut health. Practicing stress management techniques can greatly minimize your levels of stress.
Here are five ways to lose the stress and improve your digestive health:
Meditation does exactly the opposite of what stress does. It triggers the body’s relaxation response. Meditation restores the body, calms the mind and quiets the stress-induced thoughts that keep the body’s stress response active. Research has shown that those who meditate regularly recover from stressful situations more easily and experience less overall stress from the day-to-day challenges they face.
This technique is also known as diaphragmatic breathing or abdominal breathing. Deep breathing allows us to increase the supply of oxygen to our brains and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system which promotes a state of calm. The use of deep breathing allows us to bring our awareness away from our perceived worries and stress and quiet our mind.
Being in shape and exercising regularly can reduce your physiological response to stressful situations.
Exercise has a stress countering effect both in the long term and the short term.
That means that after exercise the stress response is immediately lower, but being fit also seems to make people less reactive to stress. The stress response has been linked to many different health risks, and exercise can improve not only your physical health but also your mental health.
Feeling grateful and thankful will help you gain more perspective and allow you to take a more proactive approach to the challenge. Both of these will reduce your stress levels. Gratitude has been shown to build up a psychological immune system that can make us more resilient to stress.
Laughter is the best medicine! It activates our body’s natural relaxation response. Laughing stimulates and triggers the release of endorphins that help us to feel more relaxed both physically and mentally. Laughter has the capacity to cool down the stress response and simultaneously stimulate circulation and help with muscle relaxation, reducing some of the physical symptoms of stress.
Remember, life happens and we’ll all encounter stress, but it’s your reaction to it that counts. If you can achieve a calmer state of mind and build greater resilience, then you’ll be better equipped to face the challenges that come your way. Your digestive health will thank you!
Dr. Barb Woegerer is a board-certified Naturopathic Doctor practicing in Vaughan and North York. She also provides naturopathic telemedicine/virtual services through the Ontario Telemedicine Network for any patients in the province of Ontario. Virtual care ensures that everyone has access to the best health care without having to leave their home. Dr. Barb Woegerer, ND is passionate about empowering individuals to take control of their own health. Her primary focus is to investigate the root cause of your health concerns and partner with you to provide individualized patient centred care. She empowers her patients with knowledge and provides the tools and motivation needed to succeed. Her clinical focus is on women’s health, stress management, weight loss and addictions.