10 things to know about stress and the gutStress has become a loaded word. I mean who isn’t stressed right? We typically associate being stressed with more of a psychological brain frazzled feeling that can lead to many different physical symptoms - our digestion being one of the first to feel the effects. However you might be surprised to know that this goes two ways in that our gut, specifically the trillions of microbes in our gut called the gut microbiome, can impact on our stress response. Here’s some things you need to know about this link and ways to help you restore some inner calm…
1 Stress is a normal and healthy response
Stay with me here…I’m talking about when it is acute not chronic which is what most of us are experiencing. Evolution has made us very well equipped to deal with fighting or fleeing from perceived danger but it has not caught up with the day to day stressors that we experience now – that shitty email or text, someone pushing in front of us in traffic, you get the drift. This is the type of stress that is the more damaging and longer term prioritises this survival response over every other system in the body, most notably the gut, and why we typically experience feelings of stress most acutely in our digestive system when we are anxious.
2 Psychological stress leads to gut stress
We now know that stress hormones such as cortisol can lead to increased inflammation or ‘stress’ in the gut. This stress can damage and compromise the gut barrier which means that we start to experience more systemic inflammation in the body that can present itself in various ways such as skin symptoms, poor immunity, increased immune reactions, joint pain and even linked to low mood, anxiety and heightened stress – yes really! Furthermore these same stress hormones can also impact on the balance of good bugs versus bad bugs in our gut that in itself can heighten stress. You can see how it can get into a gut-stress viscous cycle.
3 Food is not always the culprit for bloating
The misconception is that we can all too often lean towards blaming food as the cause for bloating when stress can have just as much as an impact. I call it the ‘mind bloat’. This is because the release of stress hormones such as cortisol can impair the break down of food as well as altering motility in the gut that can impact on how and when we poop. Managing our psychological stress is therefore a key part of helping to manage bloating.
4 Gut bugs say relax
Which might sound a bit sci-fi but our gut microbes produce neurotransmitters that positively influence our mood and mental wellbeing that includes serotonin dubbed our ‘happy hormone’ and GABA which is the body’s most abundant inhibitory neurotransmitters that essentially makes us more chilled.
5 Missing microbes can make us more stressed
On the flip side of the above studies have shown a gut microbiome that is lacking in beneficial bacteria may lead to a propensity for heightened stress reactions. Adding in fermented foods can help to increase numbers of our good bugs which includes sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, kombucha, natural live yogurt and cheese.
6 Release the pressure with fibre
Dietary fibre is essentially food for our microbes that helps to increase the production of neurotransmitters like GABA and to increase numbers of the good bugs in our gut that ultimately helps to reduce physical and psychological stress. Fibre can be found in all plant-based foods to include vegetables, fruit, whole grains and nuts & seeds. Variety is also the spice of life for the gut microbiome in that having a varied intake of different types of fibre helps to support a more diverse and stronger microbiome. Some easy hacks for this could include making up nut & seed mixes that you can add to soups, salads, veggies, having frozen veg or fruit that conveniently allows you to mix it up a bit more, and soups or smoothies are great for packing in a few different types.
7 Sugar and caffeine might be more trouble than they are worth
Now I’m not the sugar police here and I love a cup of Joe but too much of these create peaks and crashes with insulin and have a direct impact on cortisol levels that can heighten anxiety. Try to keep caffeine consumption to 1-2 cups max per day, before 1pm and always after food not on an empty stomach. And with sugar enjoying it mindfully and sporadically can help us to develop a more consistent and healthier relationship rather than using it as a pick me up when we are feeling frazzled or seeking reward. Think about including things that give you that same feel good factor and endorphin hit such as booking in a Frame class!
8 Meal times can be pockets of recovery
Sitting down and taking a dedicated 20-30 mins without distractions over meal times can have myriad positive benefits. Firstly it allows us to have moments in the day away from the devices and other stimulants. Taking time to chew our food properly is also one the most simple and effective ways to help support optimum digestion.
9 Relaxing on the snacking helps to reduce digestive stress
Sometimes we can find ourselves incessantly snacking and/or late night nibbling. If we are honest a lot of the time this is because we are bored or it just becomes habitual. However not giving our gut ample time chill out between meals can actually cause it a lot more work and stress as this is the time that our gut deals with cleaning up and managing inflammation. With that in mind try to aim for around 4-5 hours between main meal times and an overnight 12 hour fast which can give our gut the respite it needs.
10 Meditation calms the gut and the mind
There is now a plethora of studies and research on the benefits of using meditation and breathing in helping to manage symptoms related to the gut. Deep belly breathing (clue in the title) forms the basis of many practices such as yoga. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system which is often referred to as the ‘rest and digest’ and opposed to the sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ system that is typically the mode we are in when we are stressed. Straight up meditation might work for you either as a guided practise via an app or through dedicated classes and workshops. If you prefer a meditative practise with movement then yoga might be better for you. Just remember the postures are there to facilitate the breath and not to compete with the mind to achieve them.
And just one last thing to add…
Supporting the gut-stress connection means taking our foot off the pedal. Taking life a little slower, being less ‘busy’ which we often used as a bit of an anaesthetic, and make the race the one that we really want to win and not the one we unintentionally find ourselves competing in.