Our gut and our brain are so intrinsically linked that some researchers now refer to our gut as the “second brain”. The gut and the brain are constantly communicating to each other via the Vagus nerve, therefore heightened stress levels can result in an array of digestive complications.
When our body is presented with a stressful situation, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) responds by switching on our ‘fight or flight’ mode. This then triggers a release of cortisol (ie. stress hormone) which communicates to the body that it must stay alert. From here, we cannot enter the parasympathetic nervous system, or in other words, our body’s “rest and digest” response.
Below are some of the ways that stress can negatively affect your gut health.
During stages of stress, circulation to our organs (such as our Gastrointestinal system) are reduced in order to combat whatever stress you are encountering. Now, with the reduced blood flow to the gut, this can impact its ability to digest and absorb nutrients which can lead to poor nutrient absorption, inflammation, constipation and poor microbiome health.
High stress can reduce our digestive capacity as cortisol has the ability to reduce the production of Hydrochloric acid (HCL), which is necessary for breaking down and killing pathogens. Low HCL can lead to poor nutrient absorption, bloating, heartburn, and an increase in pathogenic bacteria in the gut.
You may have heard of ‘Leaky gut’ before, but did you know that stress can play a role in its development? Leaky gut, or intestinal permeability, refers to a weakened or broken barrier of the gut wall, which allows pathogens and toxins to easily enter the gut. This leads to inflammation, dysbiosis, and much more. How can stress cause Leaky gut? As we spoke about before, when we are stressed, our body releases more cortisol which switches on our fight or flight mode. When in flight or fight mode, our brain sends a signal to our gut to stop digestion, whilst also reducing circulation and blood flow to our gastrointestinal tract. The combination of reduced digestion & circulation, accompanied with the higher level of inflammation (thanks to cortisol) can lead to intestinal cells becoming unhealthy and thus becoming ‘leaky.’
As mentioned, increased stress can cause inflammation to take place in the body. Inflammation negatively impacts our microbiome health by encouraging growth of pathogenic bacteria. This can then cause dysbiosis, or in other words, an imbalanced microbiome.
Below are some simple stress-reducing tips that you can incorporate into your everyday life:
Put away screens and any other distractions while eating
Make sure to eat sitting upright to allow for less pressure on stomach & improved digestion
Don’t eat on the go
Try not to drink water 20 minutes before and after a meal
Take deep belly breaths prior to each meal. Breathe in for 5 – hold for 5 – breathe out for 5.
Repeat this exercise 5 times
So, before we go blaming different types of food for how our digestion is reacting, lean into the body and see how it is feeling before eating a meal. If it is stressed, then how do you expect it to take a break from that stress to properly digest the meal you just ate? Stress can be quite stubborn and will make your digestion wait.