Ever noticed the link between your stress and gut health symptoms?

Our gut – slang for our digestive system or intestines – is closely connected to our brains and particularly how we’re feeling. We know this because of the sensations we get in our ‘guts’ when we are feeling stressed or anxious. There are lots of sayings that describe this, like ‘butterflies in your stomach’ or ‘tummy tied up in knots’. I’m sure you could think of more!

Research acknowledges this link between the gut and the brain that we’ve probably all felt or noticed before. Many of you are also probably aware of how important the gut is for our overall health. If not, I’ve talked about it a bit before in previous blogs.

So, let’s cut to the chase: long-term, or chronic stress, is damaging to our gut. If you’ve read my social media posts or blogs before, you’ll know that I’ll help you understand how and why this happens. I’m all about helping you build knowledge so you can boost your health and vitality.

First, let’s explore what stress is and then we can understand how it damages our gut health. Don’t worry, I won’t leave you hanging, you’ll also get some tips on how to reverse the damage.

Let’s talk about stress, baby

Stress is defined as any disturbance that triggers the body’s nervous system to switch into its ‘fight or flight’ response, releasing cortisol, adrenalin and other messenger chemicals. These hormones and chemicals help our body to be ready to respond to danger by fighting, fleeing, or freezing. Our blood glucose levels, heart rate and breathing increase, and blood flow moves away from the digestive system and to the brain and the limbs. We are ready for action, with plenty of fuel (glucose) for our brain and muscles.

Chronic stress is very much a modern phenomenon. In times gone past, stressors were short-lived or acute. Our bodies responded to the threat, and then we rested so it could recover. In times gone past, stressors might have been hunger, a wild animal chasing us, or arguing with another human. Modern stressors include things like:

  • Physical trauma
  • Strong emotional reactions
  • Mothering
  • Worrying
  • Caring for a sick child or partner
  • Disrupted or insufficient sleep
  • Over-exercising
  • Work deadlines
  • Not eating when hungry
  • High or low blood glucose levels.

Often our response to stress comes and goes unnoticed. However, when stress is extreme, long-lasting, or unusual it can be overwhelming and harmful to most of our body systems. One of the impacts of long-term stress is that cortisol and other stress hormones are increased. These deplete the body of nutrients as they increase metabolism and inflammation. As a result, you can experience brain fog, anxiety, increased pain sensitivity, low mood and headaches.

The stress and gut health link

But what about the gut? Stress changes a few things in the gut. Most of the impact stems from decreased blood flow to the intestines that happens when we go from ‘rest and digest’ mode to fight or flight mode. Here are some of the things that stress does to your gut health.

Motility in the gut is altered during stress

Motility means the muscles surrounding the intestines contract and relax rapidly, moving food through faster. Ever noticed that when you feel stressed you might need to go for a #2 RIGHT NOW?

Many people experience this, but in chronic stress it can become a daily occurrence. That means that we aren’t getting as much opportunity to break down and absorb the nutrients from our food. Without the nutrients from our food, our cells (including those in the gut) can’t operate at full capacity.

The behaviour of the gut changes

It can become more permeable, letting in things that shouldn’t go through to the bloodstream and liver. Think undigested food proteins, bad bacteria (pathogens) and allergens. This triggers the immune cells that surround our gut enter inflammation mode. They’re ready to kill off any invading pathogens, but there aren’t any there, so they just make mischief and upset the balance of your microbiome. I’ve talked about the importance of the microbiome before here.

Stress alters the brain’s communication molecules in our gut

Whatever is going on in the gut impacts the brain, nervous system and the immune system. Now you can understand why Naturopaths are always banging on about the gut being key to health! If food isn’t in the gut long enough to break down and absorb, we won’t have the building blocks we need to make these communication molecules… cue anxiety, low mood, fatigue, lack of motivation or impulse control.

Stress significantly reduces the amount of mucous that our gut cells produce

This secretory IgA mucous is protective. It stops or slows some pathogens, allergens and undigested food particles passing through the gut walls and wreaking havoc in our body.

This mucous is also home to our good or beneficial bacteria. For example, the Akkermansia species str protective to us by reducing inflammation, maintaining healthy body mass, having more stable blood glucose levels and a healthier, more diverse gut microbiome.

Without a thick mucous lining, our little bacteria friends have less food to eat in times of a fibre shortage and less room to live in. For more info on why fibre is a gut superhero, click here. Less good bacteria means lots of things to us, and it generally isn’t great.

Alright, so enough doom and gloom, what are you going to do about it?

Stress can often be unavoidable. Though I do advocate strongly to my clients for removing stressors or putting in boundaries to help reduce the stress, sometimes this takes a while. In the meantime, we can do some things with food to help support your gut.

Eat a plant-based diet

This means lots of brightly coloured vegetables on your plate – 5-6 serves per day. Oh, and potato is ok to eat, but doesn’t count as a brightly coloured vegetable!
When you eat brightly coloured vegetables, your gut and its microbiome are getting lots of the antioxidants that they need to stay happy, strong and healthy. These give protection (they are anti-inflammatory) and the fuel (fibre) that the bacteria/microbiome needs. They ferment fibre to make fuel for themselves, but our gut wall cells use the fuel too. How awesome is that?

Up the fibre from other foods like seeds, nuts and pseudo-grains

Seedy crackers are an easy and tasty way to increase fibre and make a great accompaniment to dips, cheese or pate. I love this recipe from Quite Good Food or Tenina’s if you have a Thermomix.

Try milk or water-based kefir

Kefir has a unique ability to boost the mucous lining in the intestines. Drinking 1/4 cup per day is all you need to help keep your gut and microbiome happy. Plus it is a fermented food, so it has probiotics in it which help reduce any inflammation in your gut and help your microbiome to thrive.

Add fermented vegetables like sauerkraut and kimchi

These can help reduce inflammation in the gut and provide fuel (fibre) to the microbiome. Through these actions, they help boost the integrity of your mucous lining and reduce the impact of stress on gut health.

No need for heroic amounts either (for your housemates’ sake, more isn’t always better!) Just a tablespoon a couple of times per day is all you need.

Important note

There are some people who will feel worse for these strategies. In those cases, the impact of stress and life is significant and there is likely an imbalance in the microbiome that needs addressing before you can incorporate these foods into your diet. If this is you, then please reach out and let me support you.


Suffering the effects of the link between stress and gut health?

You don’t just have to put up with it – there are ways we can revamp your body’s stress resilience and support your gut health. The key is to have a personalised approach (because your gut is unique to you!)

Book in for a free discovery call today, and we can explore how you can feel calm, energised and balanced again.