How Does Stress Affect Your Gut?
It’s not uncommon for you to feel queasy when you’re nervous or for your digestion to be impacted when a big event is looming. This is large-part because of the gut-brain connection. When you’re mentally stressed, the signs can easily exhibit in your gastrointestinal tract. We’ll dive deeper into this below! Grab a cup of tea and keep reading!
The Gut-Brain connection
To understand better the role that stress plays in gut problems, it is important to learn about the gut-brain connection. What is it anyway?
The brain and the gut are constantly communicating. In fact, published research shows that there are more neurons found in the human gut than the spinal cord. Because of this, the brain or the gut can exchange messages to each other that can either affect them positively or negatively.
For instance, if the brain is in stress mode, it can send this message to the gut and the gut can experience bloating, nausea, or bowel issues. At the same time, the millions of bacteria in the gut can also have an impact on how the brain can process thoughts and emotions. This is why your mood can easily change when you experience gut discomfort.
It is also necessary to know that the network of neurons (around 100 million nerve cells) found in the gut lining is called the enteric nervous system. This is the reason why the gut is considered the body’s second brain. The neurons enable the gut to act and function properly. However, stress can easily disrupt the gut processes, especially digestion.
Stress and its impact on the body
When you are in a threatening situation (not always physical, can also be emotional), your body automatically goes to a fight-or-flight response. The autonomic nervous system releases cortisol (stress hormone) to increase the body’s alertness. This results in faster breathing, increased blood pressure, muscle tension, among others.
But because of the gut-brain connection, the fight-or-flight response also affects the digestive system significantly. Here’s a breakdown of how that happens:
- You might eat more or less when stressed. There is also a possibility of a higher intake of alcohol and tobacco under stress. These changes in your diet can result in acid reflux or heartburn.
- The stomach acid can damage the esophagus lining if acid reflux is frequent. Worse, you might deal with reflux issues.
- The esophagus can also make it hard for you to swallow food when stressed or increase air intake when eating. This results in gassiness and bloating.
- Stress can trigger spasms in the esophagus, but this is rare. It can be scary as esophageal spasms can be mistaken for a heart attack.
- Stress can increase or decrease your appetite. Any drastic change in your diet can create an imbalance in your gut. Additionally, sudden diet changes affect your mood, too.
- You can expect different types of stomach discomfort, including nausea, bloating, stomach pain, and cramping. Feeling the need to vomit or vomiting can also occur when there is intense stress.
- The intestines are an integral part of the human body’s digestive system. So when the body is stressed, this impacts how the body digests food. Disruption of the digestive processes can result in constipation or diarrhea.
- You may experience muscle spasms in the intestines.
- There is a chance of inflammation. Usually, the bowel has a strong intestinal barrier from the bacteria you get from food. However, stress can weaken this barrier, allowing the gut bacteria to exit the intestine and enter the body.
- For individuals who have chronic bowel issues, stress can worsen it. The gut nerves become more sensitive due to the change in diet, gut bacteria imbalance, or the change in the digestive process.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
The first step is acknowledging if you are under constant stress and then observing the changes in your body. The immediate next step taking action and not ignoring the signs and symptoms. You can:
- Start exercising regularly to release happy-hormone endorphins in the body that can combat stress.
- Practice meditation to reduce stress and focus on calmness. You can combine meditation and exercise through yoga.
- Change what you eat as the food you’re taking can contribute to stress. Instead, go for foods that fight stress like salmon because of its omega-3 fatty acids that boost the mood. Food high in magnesium (pumpkin seeds, almonds, spinach, etc) also helps in lowering cortisol levels in the body.
- Therapy can help address the root cause of stress and mood issues. Seek professional help if you think you need it.
- Taking food supplements like probiotics (with or without prebiotics) can help boost gut health, the immune system, and mood.
Remember, the gut and brain connection is a strong one. Work on gut health and brain health together to achieve optimum health. Your health is in your hands! Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live. ;)