When it comes to gut health, I often see cases of my clients following dietary protocols to the T, exercising and making significant lifestyle changes. Yet for some reason their gut symptoms will improve temporarily and then revert to a state of dis-ease or they will not improve at all. We will often quickly discover that stress is holding them back.
Stress and anxiety, whilst so intricately linked to gut health, are often the most overlooked conditions in triggering gut issues or impeding the attainment of “belly bliss”.
Stress is not necessarily just being anxious about work or relationships, it may represent overtraining, not sleeping enough, or not enjoying pleasurable things in life. It refers to any “real” or “perceived” threat to our safety which will provoke a response by the body to ensure its survival. A perceived threat is in actual fact as detrimental to health as a real threat. Our brain can become conditioned to respond to a boss’ email or the feeling of being tired as a looming threat to survival. And thus the stress response begins.
So what does stress actually do to the gut?
- Stress impedes digestion: When we become stressed our body prepares to run from a looming threat. This means blood flow and oxygen divert away from our digestive system to our muscular system. As much as four times less blood flows to your digestive system, which leads to decreased metabolism and lowered nutrient absorption. Enzyme production is also reduced, as much as 20,000 fold!
- Stress increases gut permeability: The brain releases a chemical called corticotrophin releasing factor (CRF) when one experiences stress. The release of this hormone triggers a cascade of other chemicals which eventually cause the release of the stress hormone, cortisol, from the adrenal glands. CRF receptors are also found located in the gut itself which means that the release of CRF impacts the digestive system directly. Through the effects of CRF on the gut, stress can lead to hypersensitivity to pain, inflammation, irritable bowel symptoms and a “leaky” or “permeable” gut lining.
- Stress changes the gut biochemistry and flora: Stress has been shown to cause changes in the gut microbiome as a result of changes in the inflammatory mediators and neurotransmitters. In fact research in mice has found that exposure to stress led to an overgrowth of certain types of bacteria, it also led to a decrease in the diversity of microbiome in the gut. The disruption of gut flora also leads to increased susceptibility to gut microbes and “bugs”.
- Stress may lead to Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth: Experimental studies have shown that psychological stress slows down the transit time of food through the small intestine. This encourages the overgrowth of bacteria, and even compromises the intestinal barrier. Chronic stress may therefore play an important role in the development of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) and leaky gut syndrome.
What can we do to address stress?
You will all know about my love of adapotgen herbs to assist your body in adapting to stress. There are however several other very important measures you can take to address stress:
- Exercise: Exercise produces tranquilising chemicals, known as endorphins, which are released in your brain. It has been shown to help protect against the physical effects of daily stress. You do not need to run a marathon to enjoy the benefit of these endorphins, walking briskly, dancing or doing anything that raises your heart beat will provide the pleasurable rush.
- Sleep: Restorative sleep enables your body to regulate its cortisol production more efficiently.
- Meditate: Meditation naturally promotes relaxation and enables you to become more mindful of your response to stress.
- Rewire your body’s response: If there is an activity or daily habit that generates a stressful response in you, it is time to rewire your body’s response. Recognising the feeling or emotion generated by this event and making a conscious decision not to feel distressed by this is the first step. One of my favourite books to assist you in doing this is called “Breaking The Habit of Being Yourself.”
- Pleasurable Activities: Is your life full of obligatory activities, work and nothing that provides you with pleasure? Give your body and soul the respect of doing one thing pleasurable for you every day.