Introduction to Gut Health and Stress
Stress is prevalent across the globe, and with the recent pandemic, pressure has increased for many due to isolation, loss, financial struggle and fear.
Did you know that stress has a connection to your gut health? If not, read below to find out exactly what that link is and how to reduce it.
The Gut-Brain Connection
Firstly, we must understand the gut-brain axis. Our gut and brain communicate through complex signals that impact each other. Communication goes both ways; the gut affects the brain if it's unhealthy, and the brain affects the gut if that’s unhealthy, too.1
Has feeling stressed ever caused you to have an upset stomach? Thought of food, and your stomach rumbles? This is the gut-brain axis coming into play!
What is Stress?
Stress is our body's reaction to feeling threatened or being under pressure. It most commonly occurs when we think a situation is out of our control or incapable of managing the issue.2
Stress isn’t always a bad thing. It can be helpful in small doses to improve energy levels, complete tasks, and focus. (2) In larger doses, though, it can be debilitating. Stress is a normal reaction for the body to experience 3 as long as it is manageable and does not negatively impact the person or those around them.
Stress can usually be categorised into two types:2
- Acute stress occurs almost immediately after an upsetting or unexpected event and lasts for a short period. It can be very intense for some.
- Chronic stress lasts for a more extended period or is recurring. If you have constant pressure, you may experience chronic stress.
Although stress isn’t considered a mental health issue on its own, it can be a symptom of a mental health issue or trigger a mental health issue to occur.2
You may have heard of the “fight or flight” response. This is our body’s autonomic nervous system at work. It is a natural stress response that helps the body cope with stressful situations.3 It has more recently been expanded to “flight, fight or freeze” as freeze can be an additional bodily response that some experience under stress.
This response from the nervous system causes reactions in our bodies, including tension, vision changes and breathing changes. Physical, emotional and behavioural changes can happen if the person has chronic stress, as the stress response can cause wear and tear on the body.3
Stress Response and Bowel Changes
When we’re under stress, particularly with an acute stress response, we sometimes feel the urgent need to go to the loo. A considerable part of this feeling we experience is serotonin.
95% of serotonin, a neurotransmitter and hormone, is made in the gut. Serotonin is responsible for allowing us to feel happy but also moves food along the gastrointestinal tract. When we experience a stressful event, the amount of serotonin produced in our gut increases, which can cause spasms throughout the entire colon.4
An urgent need for a bowel movement or even an accidental one can also be linked to the nervous system. Within the nervous system is the vagus nerve. It is responsible for carrying many of the signals back and forth between the digestive system and the brain.4
When there is a dysfunction in the vagus nerve, it can cause the body to feel stress and increase gut motility. The body is all linked, a vast collection of systems working together to keep the body balanced and performing well. If anything isn’t functioning well, it can throw off the entire balance.
Treatment for The Gut and Stress
You can do many things to improve the function of the gut-brain axis. You must consider both aspects to heal the body truly; focusing on just the gut may cause the brain to cause gut issues and visa-versa still.
Eating more gentle foods on your gut can improve your symptoms of stress. Foods that irritate your gut may cause you more stress, as if the gut is irritated, likely so is the brain. Foods such as toast, bananas, apple sauce, eggs, sweet potatoes, chicken and salmon can all be gentle, assuming you are not intolerant to them.5
A study conducted in 2017 discovered that following a gluten-free and plant-based diet improved depression and anxiety amongst the majority of participants when combined with daily exercise and mindfulness techniques. It is important to note that there were other variables in this study, such as removing caffeine, alcohol and refined sugar from their diets.6
Caffeine can cause a stress response in the body if used in excess. Caffeine causes a rise in energy levels and then a drop, which, if repetitive, can cause you to feel stress due to the imbalance in the body.7
Nicotine has a similar effect; it creates an immediate feeling of relaxation, which your body craves when lacking. Craving this relaxation can enhance stress. It is a myth that smoking can help to cope with stress, as the physical addiction creates the stress response to nicotine.8
Mindfulness techniques can be a fantastic tool for reducing stress. Check out our “How To Benefit Your Mind and Body” article to discover all the benefits of mindfulness.
Exercise is another fantastic tool for reducing stress levels. Exercise produces endorphins, which are our body's natural painkillers. Endorphins also improve our ability to get quality sleep, which in turn can reduce stress levels.9 Being well-rested allows our body to function optimally, so our stress response will be more measured if we are well-rested.
The Bottom Line
Although stress is a normal part of life for most people, it must be managed to ensure our bodies do not suffer from it. There are many ways to manage stress, and finding out what works for you is key to allowing the gut-brain axis to function well and let you live your best life.
Related content: Introduction to Gut Health and Mental Health