HOW DO STRESS AND GUT HEALTH AFFECT EACH OTHER?
The gut-brain axis is a communication network that links the gut and brain in the regulation of health. There is growing evidence that the gut microbiome impacts brain function, including stress responses (1).
Stress can lead to poor dietary choices and reduced physical activity; factors that are associated with changes in our gut bacteria, which can impact our mental health and well-being (1).
A good example of a gut disease that can be caused by stress is IBS. A recent study showed that stress plays a role in developing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS is a functional disorder characterized by chronic abdominal pain and disrupted bowel habits such as diarrhea or constipation. This condition often involves abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, or constipation without any known medical cause. Researchers found that psychological stressors were linked with IBS symptoms in people who had no prior history of gastrointestinal problems but did not have any association with physical stressors (2).
Stress can affect gut health in many other ways, including (3):
- It can increase intestinal permeability (leaky gut), which allows toxins to enter the bloodstream.
- Causes inflammation, which is a risk factor for many diseases, including autoimmune disorders such as celiac disease and inflammatory bowel disease.
- Causes digestive issues such as constipation or diarrhea.
- Lead to abdominal pain and nausea.
- Causes abdominal bloating due to overproduction of gas, which is caused by an overgrowth of bacteria in the colon.
- Causes the body to produce more of the hormone cortisol, which can irritate the stomach lining. If this irritation is chronic, it can lead to ulcers or intestinal bleeding.
- Causes many people to lose their appetite, which means they do not eat enough fiber or food with probiotic bacteria. Fiber helps move food through the digestive system and provides nutrients that feed the good bacteria in the gut. It also helps prevent constipation, which can make it more likely to develop diarrhea from stress.
What does it look like to have good gut health?
Having good gut health means that the digestive system is working as it should. In spite of this, "Good" gut health is a relative term and it can mean different things to different people (4).
For example, it may mean managing and reducing susceptibility to poor gut health disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome or other intestinal disorders as they may be prone to them, while for others it means keeping the gut in the healthy state that it is in (4).
Having a healthy gut can also mean having good digestion. The digestive system helps digest food and absorb nutrients. It's made up of the esophagus, stomach, small intestine (or small bowel), large intestine (or colon) and rectum. Food moves through the digestive tract by peristalsis - the squeezing motion that happens when muscles contract and relax, pushing food forward and mixing it with enzymes, bile, water and other chemicals from your liver, gallbladder and pancreas. When this system is working as it should, then one can say they have a healthy gut (4).
It's very important to maintain good gut health because a healthy digestive system helps (4):
- To reduce the susceptibility to developing allergies, asthma, and other inflammatory conditions such as eczema.
- Have fewer digestive symptoms such as bloating, constipation, and diarrhea.
- Have fewer infections such as colds, flu, and sinusitis.
In general, good gut health means that the digestive system is functioning properly and not experiencing any symptoms of digestive issues. This can be achieved by eating a healthy diet that includes plenty of fiber and probiotics (in addition to other nutrients) and avoiding foods that may trigger symptoms in sensitive individuals (4).
Ways to reduce stress and improve your gut health
There are many ways to reduce stress. Here are some ideas:
- Take time for yourself.
- Perform activities that induce joy
- Eat well and get enough sleep.
- Exercise regularly (minimum 30 minutes for at least three times a week).
- Learn relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises and meditation.
Stress may make gastro-intestine (GI) issues worse — but it is not the only thing that can cause digestive problems (5). Food intolerance or an imbalance in the good bacteria in your gut, called probiotics can also cause digestive issues. To help improve digestion, talk to a doctor about the best way to manage stress and consider adding these natural remedies into a daily routine:
- Enough sleep.
- Well-balanced meals with plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
- Drink plenty of water every day.
Taking care of your gut health
The gut is the largest part of the immune system and it is responsible for digesting food, absorbing nutrients, and eliminating waste.
The gut is a complex ecosystem made up of trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms called the microbiome (5). The health and balance of the microbiome are important for many aspects of health. For example, having a healthy gut can help in digesting foods more easily, absorbing nutrients from food better and even maintaining a good mood and reducing stress levels (5).
A healthy gut means a happy body, which is why it is so important to take care of the digestive system. Here are some tips to keep the gut healthy (5):
- Eat probiotic foods like yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut. These fermented foods contain live beneficial bacteria that help balance out the bad bacteria in the gut.
- Drink enough water. The body needs water to digest food properly and absorb nutrients from food. Dehydration can cause constipation as well as other digestive issues.
When suffering from chronic health conditions like diabetes or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), it's important to take steps to improve gut health - not only because it will help with day-to-day symptoms but also because it could reduce the risk for other serious diseases like cancer or heart disease.
Before taking any steps towards healing your gut, please be sure to consult a nutritionist or your general practitioner for guidance and more information.
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- Audet MC. Stress-induced disturbances along the gut microbiota-immune-brain axis and implications for mental health: Does sex matter?. Frontiers in neuroendocrinology. 2019 Jul 1;54:100772.
- Qin HY, Cheng CW, Tang XD, Bian ZX. Impact of psychological stress on irritable bowel syndrome. World journal of gastroenterology: WJG. 2014 Oct 10;20(39):14126.
- Madison A, Kiecolt-Glaser JK. Stress, depression, diet, and the gut microbiota: human–bacteria interactions at the core of psychoneuroimmunology and nutrition. Current opinion in behavioral sciences. 2019 Aug 1;28:105-10.
- Butler MI, Bastiaanssen TF, Long-Smith C, Berding K, Morkl S, Cusack AM, Strain C, Porteous-Allen P, Claesson MJ, Stanton C, Cryan JF. Recipe for a healthy gut: intake of unpasteurised milk is associated with increased lactobacillus abundance in the human gut microbiome. Nutrients. 2020 May;12(5):1468.
- Chotai P. How the mind-gut axis can improve our health. gut. 2021 Aug 13.
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