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’s lots of sayings that describe this, like ‘Butterflies in your stomach’. ‘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 her and I’ll tell you right now that 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.
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 the danger by fighting, fleeing, or in some cases fleeing. 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 phenomena. In times gone past, stressors were short-lived or acute. Our body responded to the threat, and then we rested so it could recover from the stress hormones we release when our body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode. 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
- Caring for a sick child or partner
- Disrupted or insufficient sleep
- 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, and remaining in fight or flight mode, is that cortisol and other stress hormones are increased and these deplete the body of nutrients as they increase metabolism and inflammation (which can contribute to things like brain fog, anxiety, increased pain sensitivity, low mood and headaches).
But what about the gut? Stress changes a few things for our 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’s some of the things that stress does to your gut health.
- Motility in the gut is altered during stress – maybe you’ve noticed that when you feel stressed you might need to go for a #2 RIGHT NOW! (Motility meaning the muscles surrounding the intestines contract and relax more quickly, moving food through faster.) Many people experience this, but in chronic stress it can become a daily occurrence and this 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. So that’s impact #1.
- With increased motility, the behaviour of the gut changes too. So it can become more permeable and let things through that shouldn’t go through to the blood stream and liver. Things like undigested food proteins, bad bacteria (pathogens), allergens. This triggers the immune cells that surround our gut and they go into inflammation-mode, ready to kill off any invading pathogens, but there mostly isn’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.
- Here’s another fun fact, we make most of our brain’s communication molecules in our gut. So 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 our food isn’t spending enough time in the gut to be broken down and absorbed, then we don’t have all the building blocks we need to make all these communication molecules…cue anxiety, low mood, fatigue, lack of motivation or impulse control.
- Lastly, stress significantly reduces the amount of mucous that our gut cells produce. This mucous (called secretory IgA) is protective – it stops or slows some pathogens, allergens and undigested food particles passing through the gut walls, triggering our immune system, and wreaking havoc in our body. This mucous is also home to our good or beneficial bacteria, including the Akkermansia species, which research tells us are protective to us and help reduce inflammation, maintain healthy body mass, have 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. (More info on why fibre is a gut superhero here.) Less of the 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, and we can do some things with food to help support your gut in this tricky time. A note that there are people who will feel worse for these strategies that I’m about to talk through. In those cases, the impact of stress and life is significant and there is potentially an imbalance in the microbiome that needs addressing before you can incorporate these foods in to your diet. If this is you, then please reach out and let me develop a personalised wellness plan for you.
Ok, so what to do if you’re feeling stressed and you want to support your gut’s health?
- 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 plant chemicals (anti-oxidants) that they need to stay happy, strong and healthy. These plant chemicals give protection (they are anti-inflammatory) and the fuel (fibre) that the bacteria/microbiome need. They ferment fibre to make fuel for themselves, but our gut wall cells use the fuel too. How awesome is that?
- Fibre from other foods like seeds, nuts and pseudo grains is also important. 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.
- Kefir – either milk or water-based. 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.
- Fermented vegetables, like sauerkraut and kimchi, help reduce inflammation in the gut, provide fuel (fibre) to the microbiome and from these actions 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 more!). Just a tablespoon a couple times per day is all you need.
So there you have it. My short summary of stress, what it does to your gut and how to reduce that impact! What do you think? Easy enough to do? These days, there’s so many options for fermented foods and drinks in the supermarket and the health food store. Just be sure to always choose unpasteurised brands that are kept in the fridge section. If it is on the shelf, it’s been pasteurised and the probiotic effect is lost.
I’d love to hear from you about your favourite fermented foods or brands, as well as your favourite way to pack colourful vegetables in to your day!