Stress is something we all experience … so how does it affect your gut?
If you’ve ever experienced ‘butterflies in your tummy’ or running to the loo before an exam or presentation, you’ll know that nerves and anxiety can affect your gut in a big way.
In fact, scientists have known for hundreds of years that emotions and stress can affect the way the gut functions, causing symptoms like tummy cramps, loose stools and even constipation.
We also know that stress can trigger IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and other digestive problems like heartburn and ulcers. But why does this happen?
To understand how our mental state affects the gut, we need to take a closer look at something called the gut brain axis.
The Gut Brain Axis
Although you can’t see them at work, your gut and brain are constantly sending messages to each other, via a pathway called the gut-brain axis – you can think of this as a string telephone that allows messages to be pinged back and forth between the two organs.
Incredibly, the little brain in your gut has as many nerve (messenger) cells as your spinal cord. Throughout the day, messages and emotions are transmitted from your central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) to the enteric nervous system (aka the little brain in your Gut), to power muscular contractions and the release of hormones and fluids that help digest food.
Although you’ll probably be aware of some of the messages that travel between your big brain and your gut’s little brain (hunger, fullness, pain and discomfort) there are hundreds of others that you aren’t aware of (e.g. ‘food coming, please release enzymes for digestion!’), because they are under automatic control.
Stress And The Gut Brain Axis
So what’s this got to do with stress? Well, when we experience stressful situations, (anything from driving in busy traffic to having a tough morning at work), the brain releases various stress hormones. This is known as the 'fight or flight' response, and is part of how your body prepares itself for action against threat.
Once released, these stress hormones travel through the gut brain axis, and are picked up by receptors in your gut’s little brain, where they trigger changes in gut function. Changes can include…
- An increase in gut motility (which means more frequent trips to the bathroom!)
- A heightened perception of pain (so you may feel cramps and spasms more intensely)
- A change in the release of fluids like stomach acid
- A reduction in the the rate at which your stomach empties
- Changes in the growth and movement of gut bacteria
These changes don’t sound particularly helpful in today’s world, but they might have been in the past. By slowing down digestion, your body could divert all it’s attention to dealing with a perceived threat – such as running from an animal. Equally, if your brain sensed the threat of illness, opening your bowels more often might have helped to get rid of a bad meal that could have caused infection.
Whilst we don’t face the same threats today, our bodies still respond to stress in the same way, which is why high stress levels or stressful events can lead to tummy troubles.
Stress isn’t something we can get rid of – but we can take positive steps to help manage external pressures and increase our emotional strength so we get better at coping. By doing so, we can help to reduce the impact on our digestive systems.
For people with IBS or digestive issues (like bloating and tummy pain), reducing stress levels and including self-care habits (like exercise, relaxation and sleep) can have a positive effect on symptoms.
If you are feeling overwhelmed with stress, try reading through our five simple to help you take positive action. We’d also love to hear how you manage your stress levels – why not share them on our page?
Five Simple Steps To Manage Stress
We can think of stress as a situation or event that put lots of pressure on us, or feelings that we have around our ability to cope with pressure. Taking steps to tackle stress can help us to get better at coping with the demands of every day life.
1. Move Your Body
You probably know it, but its worth a reminder. Exercise is a very effective way of managing stress, as it produces hormones that help elevate mood and help us feel more relaxed. Walking is ideal as it’s free and easy to do - around 20 minutes is enough to get the benefits. Going outside to walk is even better, as studies show being around green spaces and water boost our sense of wellbeing.
2. Make A List
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, make a list of everything you have to do – getting the tasks out of your head onto paper can be helpful. Arrange them in order of importance, and focus on the most urgent first, working on just one thing at a time, for a manageable amount of time.
3. Dip Into A Relaxation Jar
We all need time out to help us detach from pressure, but we tend to be bad at building in into our busy days. If this sounds familiar, try this tip. Make a list of a few things that help you to relax (like having a bath, listening to music, calling a friend, reading or watching comedy). Pop these ideas onto slips of paper and put them into an empty jar – each morning, pick one slip from the jar and build in some time to do that activity.
4. Take time to Hobby
Taking time to do an activity you enjoy (non work-related!) is hugely helpful when it comes to stress relief, as it gives your mind a break and allows you to focus on something different. Give yourself a hobby date each week – 90 minutes where you do something out of your normal routine. If you’re not sure what, try a few things – new experiences are great for helping to boost mood and wellbeing.
5. Try Mindfulness
Studies show mindfulness (where we focus our attention on the present moment, rather than thinking into the future or past) can help to reduce stress and anxiety. Try the headspace app for a free 14 day introduction to mindfulness, or check out Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction