stress and the gut

Managing the Impact of Stress on Your Gut

Is your gut feeling the fallout of pandemic stress? Here’s why (and what might help) by dietitian Laura Tilt.

Stress (a sense of overwhelm or being unable to cope) - is a feeling we’re all familiar with, but especially so after the last two years of pandemic living, which has delivered regular spikes of uncertainty and chaos.

According to research from the Mental health Foundation, many of us have been feeling less able to cope with the stress of the pandemic as it’s gone on. Though we might consider stress to be something that primarily affects our mental health, the effects can be felt body wide - including the gut.

Your gut on stress

When stress strikes (whether that’s as a result of an anxiety provoking news report, or a loved one falling ill), the body’s fight or flight system is switched on, and stress hormones (like cortisol) are released. This is an evolutionary response designed to help us respond to dangerous situations by preparing us to fight or flee - even if in today’s world we’re sitting on the sofa and the only fleeing we’re doing is inside our brain.

Stress hormones trigger a range of mental and physical responses - you might notice an increase in your heart rate and breathing, tense muscles, a restless mind, headache, or irritability. But it doesn't stop there - these ‘high alert’ hormones are also picked up by receptors in your gut, where they trigger changes in gut function.

More specifically, the stress response has been shown to
  • Affect your appetite (you might feel hungrier or lose your appetite altogether)
  • Decrease how quickly your stomach empties
  • Accelerate transit in your large intestine (so you might find yourself needing to poop urgently)
  • Increase acid secretion, which can aggravate or trigger heartburn
  • Heighten gut sensitivity, which might lead to tummy pain or discomfort
  • Change the balance of gut microbes and how they function
Ultimately these changes are a result of the body pulling resources away from the gut so it has the energy to fight or flee, but they can be pretty uncomfortable to deal with.

The long-term impacts of stress on the gut

It’s important to remember that some level of stress is normal and healthy - and the stress response evolved to protect us. Under usual circumstances the body returns to its usual resting state after a stressful event has passed, keeping the effects short lived. Let’s imagine you have an important work presentation - chances are you feel anxious and on edge and might need to take a few trips to the loo before you present. But once the meeting is over and the ‘threat’ has passed, stress hormones dissipate, your body relaxes, your gut settles and you move on with your day.

What we need to be mindful of is stress that lasts for a prolonged period - as has taken place over the last two years. If you’re always feeling on high alert, then your body and gut will be too, and over time, this may contribute to gut symptoms and discomfort alongside mental exhaustion and other physical symptoms like poor sleep and frustration.

If you have an existing gut condition like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), then you might have experienced more flare ups, or worsening of symptoms. Stress is a recognised risk factor for the development or relapse of IBS and encountering a major life stressor (like the breakup of a close relationship) is often reported prior to the onset of IBS symptoms.

Stress: a state of feeling overwhelmed or unable to cope with mental or emotional pressure

Managing the impact of stress on your gut

If you’re feeling unable to cope, the first step is to reach out to your G.P. or doctor, who can talk you through what support is available. The same goes if you’ve got a gut condition and you’ve noticed your symptoms ramping up - or you’ve had a change in your poo or gut symptoms that have lasted longer than a couple of weeks. Check in with your doctor first, just to ensure there’s nothing else underlying the change.

Once you’re able to put some practical steps in place, these strategies can help.

1. Limit access to the news

Staying on top of the news has become something of an addictive activity during the pandemic, but studies show watching negative reports and programmes can activate the stress response and increase anxiety and low mood.

Try it: Gauge how you feel before and after consuming media, and if you notice yourself feeling on edge after engaging with it (be that social media or the news), take a few days away from watching, or set yourself a strict limit each day (e.g 15 minutes) and follow it up with something feel good like an uplifting playlist, a chat with a friend or a good book. You can also ask a friend or loved one to filter the news and set boundaries with what others tell you too.

2. Take a daily breathing space

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, a few minutes of deep breathing can really help you to feel calmer. That’s because deep breathing can switch on the parasympathetic nervous system - the opposite of the fight or flight response.

Try it: A 30-second breathe bubble

Whenever you feel like you need to catch your breath, practice this 30 second breathing exercise with Calm Breathe.

Square or Box Breathing

Square or box breathing is an easy technique that helps you slow and deepen your breath. It’s reportedly used by navy seals to help them stay calm during times of stress. The technique involves drawing a square in your mind in time with your breath:
  • breathe in for four counts - draw one side of the square
  • hold for four counts - draw the second side of the square
  • breathe out for four counts - draw the third side of the square
  • hold for four counts - draw the fourth side of the square

You can practice this for one to two minutes sitting in a relaxed and comfortable position with your eyes open or closed. And, if you have longer to spare, try this 10 minute breathing practice with Richie Norton

3. Move Your Body for 20

Lots of research exists to show that exercise has a positive impact on our mental wellbeing in the long term, but it can also help shift our stress state in the moment by lowering levels of cortisol and adrenaline and increasing levels of endorphins (feel good hormones).

Try it: If you’re feeling on high alert, take a 15-20 walking break - bonus points if you can walk in a green space, as this has a naturally calming effect. Alternatively this restorative yoga sequence can help you find calm, and it’s just 20 minutes long.

4. Try a gut focused psychological therapy

If you have IBS and have noticed a relationship between stress and symptom severity, then it’s worth exploring gut directed psychological therapies, which can help to calm and retrain a heightened gut-brain axis. Both CBT (Cognitive behavioural therapy) and gut-directed hypnotherapy have been shown to be effective in helping to manage symptoms.

Try it: Speak with your G.P. about what services are available or check out self-help apps Nerva (gut directed hypnotherapy) and Zemedy (CBT) which have been developed to help target the gut brain axis for those with IBS.