GUT FEELINGS – Part 3: The Stressed Gut

In this five-part series, we’ll be talking about all things digestion. In Part 2, we discussed the signs and symptoms of a dysfunctional digestive system. Now, let’s go over how STRESS, specifically, impacts your gut health. 

Stressed. We all feel it these days don’t we?

There’s this constant need to be ‘on’ all the time; we’re bombarded with work commitments, family and friends, being stuck in traffic, our phone going off every 2 minutes…the list goes on.

But have you ever considered that all this chronic stress is affecting your gut?

Let’s first define what stress is:

Stress is any real or perceived (psychological) threat to the balance of your body’s system, triggering adaptive responses to help maintain internal stability and look after your survival. [1]

Have you ever had ‘butterflies’ in your tummy when you were nervous?
Are you familiar with that ‘knot in your stomach’ when you have to make an important decision under pressure?
Do people tell you to ‘follow your gut’?

It seems that we’ve known for a long time that our brain and gut are connected and in constant communication. A highway of nerves runs directly from the brain to the digestive system, with messages flowing in both directions. The stomach and intestines also have their own network of nerve cells — even more than the entire spinal cord!

In times of stress, our bodies are designed to focus on the things that will help us stay alive. 

When our ancestors were getting chased by lions, they didn’t want to waste energy on less important things like slow, proper digestion.

When the brain perceives a threatening situation our sympathetic nervous system turns on, triggering that ‘fight or flight’ response we all know too well. This unleashes a cascade of hormones, like CRH which tells the adrenals to secrete cortisol and adrenaline. Cortisol raises your heart rate and blood pressure, shifting all your blood away from the unessential systems of the body into your muscles so you can run away from the threat as fast as possible.

The stress response turns off your appetite, which explains why many people feel they can’t eat. Your stomach muscles stop contracting due to the lack of blood flow, and not enough acid is secreted, leaving you feeling nauseous or indigested. A lack of stomach acid can also result in a build up of pathogens and bacteria, like H. Pylori, which cause sores and ulcers in the stomach.

Stress also increases gut motility and fluid secretion — cue sprints to the bathroom before you poop yourself! 💩

Long-term stress has also been shown to alter the balance of gut flora by lowering microbiome diversity and decreasing the number of friendly bacteria, thereby creating an environment where undesirable strains flourish. On top of that, our immune system — 80% of which resides in our gut — cannot function properly when it doesn’t receive the influx of fresh blood. Chronic stress also increases gut permeability, leading to a greater risk of immune responses to the food you eat (i.e. food allergies/intolerances).

Interestingly, research has shown that our gut flora can also affect the way we handle stressful situations — our mood, thoughts, energy levels — further indicating the two-way communication channel between the gut and the brain.

Here’s a recap of the different symptoms your digestive system displays when you’re stressed:

  • Loss of appetite/Nausea
  • Indigestion/Heartburn
  • Cramping
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Ulcers
  • Increased symptoms of IBS/IBD

If you experience any of these symptoms regularly, and have ruled out any food allergies or sensitivities that may cause a digestive reaction or other pathological causes, then I suggest you assess your stress levels before you start popping medication.

Do you find yourself running to the toilet before a big presentation at work?
Do you regularly skip meals when you’re running around doing a hundred things at once?
Are you more sensitive to the food you normally eat when you’re under a lot of pressure?

Our digestion plays a massive role in our health, and chronic stress can have adverse effects on our gut’s ability to function.

Here are some ways you can optimise your digestion, even when you’re feeling stressed:

  1. SLOW DOWN. Don’t go wolfing your food down while you’re walking to your next appointment. Your digestive system is already shutting down because you’re stressed, you don’t need to be shoving in mouthfuls of food that your stomach can’t keep up with.
  2. BREATHE. Find a place to sit down to eat. Before you even pick up your fork, take a few deep breaths. Try this technique out: Inhale for 4 counts, hold for 4, exhale for 4, hold for 4. Repeat.
  3. CHEW. How do you make the work easier on your stomach and intestines to break down your food? You break it down for them by chewing it in your mouth. Put your fork down between mouthfuls and take the time to chew your food – ideally 20-30 times – before swallowing.
  4. REMOVE DISTRACTIONS. We’re all guilty of eating in front of the TV or at our desks while working, but have you noticed how you don’t even realise how much you’ve eaten when you do that? How many times have you finished your plate of food and thought “Huh, I’m still kind of hungry… didn’t seem like that much food.” Try getting rid of the phone, TV, computer, when you eat and focus on WHAT and HOW you’re eating. You’ll probably find that you feel way more satiated after your meal than when you were multitasking.
  5. EAT COOKED FOOD. Raw food, like salads, are great and they have their time and place, but when your gut is under a lot of stress, they can be very hard to break down. Choose well-cooked vegetables and easy-to-digest proteins to ease the load on your digestive system. I love some leafy green veggies and shredded chicken or sliced fish cooked in broth; it just feels nourishing on my stomach.

Stay tuned for the next instalment of the Gut Feelings series where we’ll go over the phenomenon popularly known as “Leaky Gut”!

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