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The Effects Stress Has on the Gut and How to Help Ease it

By Eve Kalinik.

These days it has almost become a badge of honour to be seen to be as busy as possible. We might think that running at life a million miles an hour is the only way to achieve everything we need to but being busy doesn’t equal being happier, and it can ultimately lead to a stressed-out state. In fact, a stressed mind leads to a stressed gut microbiota and vice versa. Here’s how…

The Stressful Spiral
The stress response prioritises escaping or fighting the perceived threat over other systems in the body, including the functioning of the gut and the immune system. The reason for this is that digestion and immunity are of secondary concern when the body perceives there to be an imminent threat, because once the danger has passed our gut and immune system can, in theory, resume normal duties.

However, when we experience on-going stress, the hormonal response is never switched off and the resulting stream of stress hormones such as cortisol, can create chronic low-grade inflammation. This can have a direct and negative impact on the composition of microbes in the gut so that the ‘good’ guys are compromised. Elevated cortisol also increases permeability to the gut barrier and the release of pro-inflammatory chemicals. This escalates inflammation in the gut as well as potentially leading to a ‘leaky gut’ which can negatively impact on the brain, making us more susceptible to stress and a frazzled state of mind. This perpetuates a downward stressful spiral.

As the gut becomes increasingly overwhelmed, more stress hormones and inflammatory signals are released which results in both microbiota and barrier functioning of gut becoming compromised.

Stressed Microbiota
The physical effects of stress on our gut can include nausea, diarrhoea and a generally unsettled gut. We may believe that such symptoms stem from the brain and psychological stressors but studies indicate that our gut microbiota can also help to control our body and brain’s response to stress. Moreover, a microbiome that is lacking in beneficial bacteria may lead to a propensity for heightened stress reactions.

Stress may have yet another connection to our microbiome. We know that noradrenalin is a major chemical player in our ‘fight or flight’ response, but what has recently become evident from several studies is that this same chemical can also be released in the gut and is in direct communication with gut microbiota. As you can imagine, a stress mediator chemical isn’t likely to have a soothing effect on our gut microbes. In fact, it may stimulate the growth of pathogenic bacteria that have been linked to stomach ulcers and other gut infections. Moreover, not only does the release of noradrenaline increase the numbers of these potential pathogens but it also makes them more aggressive, so that they can maintain and increase their hold in the gut. In this case, it’s survival of the most stressed-out bugs!

4 Ways to Help Manage Stress

Rest and Digest
One of the most basic things we can do to help manage stress is to consider meal times as dedicated and worthy moments during the day rather than the rushed affairs that we most often seem to give them. Rather than furiously gobbling down food we want to give a lot more importance to meal times as mini pockets of recovery will allow us to properly ‘rest & digest’. From a purely ‘destressing’ perspective using meal times as opportunities to get some time out from your day isn’t adding in anything extra for you to think about.

Curb Your Adrenal Spend
The adrenals are comparatively small glands that sit above our kidneys. Forming part of the trio in the HPA (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) axis that communicates to the gut, these glands are the ones that produce hormones during stress. It’s therefore vital to address the factors that are causing you and your adrenals stress. Some of these factors will be more obvious and indeed easier to tackle than others: for example, changing career might not be easy but things like not getting enough or decent quality sleep, skipping meals, and overdoing it on the caffeine and booze will all put pressure on the adrenals. By starting with what might seem like one minor change you can take many positive steps towards a significant reduction in stress overall.

Stress-Less Foods
Supporting a less-stressed gut needs to focus on nourishing our gut microbiota with its favourite flavours. This would include myriad sources of dietary fibre to include diversity in the colour and types of vegetables, fruit, wholegrains, nuts & seeds fibre. Complementing this it would be mindful to include naturally ‘probiotic’ rich fermented foods such as ‘live’ yogurts, cheese, sauerkraut and kimchi that bring in additional beneficial microbes. Foods that are high in omega-3 essential fatty acids also have a fundamental role in how we manage stress, both by supporting brain function and mood and in their general anti-inflammatory effect. Other stress supportive foods could include those rich in vitamin C – pepper, berries, broccoli and kiwi are excellent sources, sunflower seeds for their high vitamin B5 content and sources of magnesium found in nuts and seeds, whole grains, avocados and leafy greens.

Mindful Not Mind-Full
The real benefits of mindful practise are definitely not something woo-woo. In fact, this is a necessary part of helping us and our gut to feel less frazzled. Each of us will find that some techniques suit us better than others which could include meditation, walking, breathing exercises, gentle yoga or pilates, to name a few. Whatever helps to give our mind some breathing space should really form part of our daily routine as we manage the daily stressors.

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