You may not initially think that stress can do that much to your gut right? But you’d be wrong. Think about when you get extremely nervous or worried about a situation, you tend to get “butterflies” in your stomach or some people say they feel sick, this shows just how quickly stress can affect your gut but it can also have more long term effects too.
Short term stress is fine is small doses and let’s face it, in today’s world it’s pretty hard to avoid, but when you go through a stressful period that lasts a longer time, especially without ways to break that pattern, it can become a big problem.
Long-term stress and your gut
This extended stress will start to have an effect on your gut microbiome, i.e. the composition of bacteria, fungi and viruses that reside in your gut. This is due to chemical signals in your body that get released when you’re stressed, cortisol being the most well known, which can promote the growth of unfavourable bacteria and reduce the growth of beneficial ones. Once the unfavourable bacteria get a hold, they proliferate and release compounds such as cytokines that can increase inflammation not only in your gut but in your whole body, this is often why people with chronic conditions say they get worse when they’re stressed. Whereas, when you have a good diet and aren’t stressed, your gut makes compounds like short chain fatty acids which are anti-inflammatory.
Your bacteria also secrete compounds including neurotransmitters that can affect your mood and wellbeing, but this is dependent on the diversity of the gut it can benefit mood or ironically can make you more prone to stress and even depressed, which fuels the cycle to continue. A study which examined germ free (GF) mice without a healthy gut saw that when their microbiota was transplanted into normal mice that these mice began showing increased anxiety behaviour.
Link: Stress & the gut-brain axis: Regulation by the microbiome (nih.gov)
Stress on your immune system
There is also a connection between your gut and your immune system where the bacteria in your gut can secrete signals to prime immune cells so that they are ready for any invaders, if your gut isn’t in top shape then this lowers your immunity and makes you more likely to get ill. This was shown in a study where mice were bred without a microbiome and as a result they couldn’t develop an immune system.
Link: The gut microbiota shapes intestinal immune responses during health and disease | Nature Reviews Immunology
Constant stress also affects digestion as it can lower your stomach acid levels which makes it harder to digest your food and hence get the same amount of nutrition from it. A further blow to your nutrition is that being stressed also increases your desire for unhealthy, energy dense food which is often the worst kind to keep your gut bacteria in an optimal state, think reaching for that sugary bar of chocolate or demolishing that pack of biscuits without even realising, all because you were in “fight or flight” mode.
How to reduce stress on your gut
As you can see, you can easily fall into a vicious cycle where stress and your gut are concerned, so it’s important to recognise this and try to implement coping strategies where possible.
- Try meditating or taking deep breaths to calm down before eating.
- Aim to eat mindfully. This means not having any screens near you while you eat and focusing on chewing your food well and slowly.
- Go for a nature walk after a meal; it’s relaxing and helps with digestion.
- Focus on whole-foods and high-fibre snacks so that when an anxiety snack attack arrives, you can nourish your body with health-ful snacks to make you feel better in the long-run.
In just a few simple ways, we can see how we can reduce the impact of stress on our bodies. Consistent and long-term stress can have huge negative impacts not only on our body but directly on the gut, which, as research proves, plays a vital role in our overall wellbeing. However, we can act on this stress to minimise its impacts. Whether that means taking regular work breaks to reduce the stressful feelings taking your body from stress to rest mode or whether you focus on a few walks in nature and fresh air, do whatever makes YOU feel good. Your gut and your body, will thank you.
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Thanks to my own health journey and Masters in food security, I love learning about what food does for our health & believe that knowing how our food enriches us, makes it easier to live healthier. I want to learn as much as I can about food, health & wellness, so figured why not share this with others? I do this through my socials and blog @Dontfrigwithmyfood