Stress has become a normal part of our everyday life, and we all experience stress at some level. Some of us have extensive family responsibilities, a demanding job, or simply a lot going on in your life. While occasional stress is expected (and in some cases, healthy), chronic stress can present some significant metabolic impacts to the body. It also has a significant impact on the gut and digestive health.
The Debilitating Effects of Chronic Stress
When the brain perceives a threat to your existence, the natural response is to shift your body into a sympathetic state, or “fight or flight” response. But your brain does not know the difference between an attacking tiger and a stressful situation at work. It treats both as a potential threat. A part of the brain called the hypothalamus initiates the “fight or flight” process by signaling the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline increases heart rate, blood pressure, and mobilizes energy reserves. Cortisol, the main stress hormone in the body, increases glucose levels in the blood to enhance your brain’s use of that glucose. Cortisol will also shut down any nonessential body functions. This is because, if the brain thinks you have to run from a tiger, it will want to divert all energy to your immediate survival needs. This leads to changes to the immune response, suppression of other organ systems, mood swings, anxiety, depression and irritability.
These biological processes are based on instinctive behaviors designed to keep you alive, but when you are under chronic stress, your body is unable to turn off that fight or flight response. That results in a constant, steady flood of cortisol and other stress hormones that can interrupt your body’s normal processes. This can cause:
- Frequent headaches
- Weight gain
- Cardiovascular issues
- Sugar cravings and imbalances in insulin and blood sugar
- Insomnia and other sleep issues
- Impaired memory and concentration
These negative effects extend throughout the gut and digestive system.
Stress and Your Gut
Your brain and your GI tract communicate in a bidirectional manner, referred to as the gut-brain axis. Therefore, your mental state can have a significant impact on digestion, potentially triggering gastrointestinal issues or worsening existing ones.
The enteric nervous system is a complex network of neurons that constantly send information to the brain. The gut is also home to a diverse population of bacteria, called the microbiome, that contribute to a wide range of functions, such as breaking down food, absorbing nutrients, and producing certain vitamins. However, stress can disrupt this network of neurons and can cause imbalances in the microbiome.
All of this translates to gastrointestinal distress. Studies have found that chronic stress may worsen symptoms or cause relapse in patients with inflammatory bowel diseases, such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Stress is believed to cause increased inflammation in the gut. Evidence from experimental and clinical studies suggests that psychological stress may play a significant role in the development of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Evidence also slows that psychological stress might increase the severity of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Stress is known to alter gut motility, resulting in either diarrhea or constipation. Stress may also weaken the intestinal lining- a condition called “leaky gut” or the scientific term, gut hyperpermeability. When the lining of the intestine becomes excessively permeable, microscopic food proteins and bacteria can freely enter the bloodstream and trigger an immune response, which leads to increased inflammation and gastrointestinal issues. You may also be more susceptible to gas, bloating, and general bowel discomfort.
Coping with Stress
To rebalance your digestive system and support overall health, it is important to learn how to manage your stress in constructive, healthy ways. Here are some tips that may help.
Physical activity can provide an outlet to release the physical stress and tension in your body. Exercise also gives your mind something to focus on aside from your mental stressors; it results in the release of dopamine and other feel-good chemicals to ease your body and mind.
As discussed earlier, stress increases blood glucose levels. In the short term, this can result in a reduced appetite, but chronic stress has the opposite effect. For most people, stress increases appetite, particularly cravings for sweets and other junk foods. Therefore, it is critical to eat in a way that keeps blood sugar and insulin stable throughout the day. This will put less pressure on the adrenal system as well. Instead of choosing carb-heavy processed foods, reach for foods that are good for the gut. Fermented foods like sauerkraut, fermented veggies, kimchi, and fermented pickles provide probiotics. Eating a wide variety of fiber-rich fruits and vegetables helps to diversify the gut microbiome, which in turn strengthens the immune system and preserves those microbial functions. Also, take time with eating. Do not rush through a meal and inhale your food- instead chew each bite 15 times. This will signal the brain that you are safe, can take time to eat, and will shift you into that parasympathetic state of “rest and digest”. Bovine colostrum and other supplements may also help to strengthen gut health.
Meditation and breathing exercises are known to reduce stress, regulate blood pressure, and support more mindful thinking. Consider taking yoga, which combines meditation with moderate exercise. But meditation can also be a walk in nature, sitting in a quiet space reflecting, or taking time to think about what you are grateful for. When in a state of gratitude, it is difficult to be stressed.
Unfortunately, chronic stress has become an everyday norm for us in our modern world, so it’s important to find healthy ways of managing stress on your own. This can be building a support system, making lifestyle changes, or seeking professional help. If you are suffering from gut issues related to stress, consider trying colostrum. Colostrum contains bioactives that help strengthen the lining of the gastrointestinal tract and reduce intestinal permeability.