Photo: Getty Images / Klaus Vedfelt
Ever get so overwhelmed that you started to feel physical symptoms? Maybe an upset stomach? Well, you're not alone. There is a growing body of research that is exploring stress and what it does to the gut. Keep reading to see how stress can effect your digestive health and get tips for how to relieve stress for a healthier gut.
Our gastrointestinal (GI) tracts have their own nervous system—the enteric nervous system. The enteric nervous system is made up the same neuron building blocks as the central nervous system, aka our brain and spinal cord. Not only are they similar in their makeup, but the neurons in the gut use a variety of neurotransmitters, like serotonin, to communicate with the brain. Due to their interconnectedness, stress can trigger or exacerbate GI distress, and vice versa. Additionally, prolonged GI issues can intensify stress and anxiety. In fact, several treatment options for GI disorders include psychotherapy to evaluate and manage stress.
Check Out: 3 Ways to Ease Your Stress
Six Ways Stress Can Mess with Your Digestion
Recent research has found a relationship between stress and digestive distress like indigestion or irritable bowel syndrome. Furthermore, studies are finding that stress may even have implications for the gut microbiota. To dive a little deeper, a review of studies looked at six of the main reasons why stress can mess with your gut. Here is what they came up with:
Your GI tract is lined with a type of muscle called smooth muscle. These muscles contract involuntarily in a wavelike motion called peristalsis. These muscle contractions allow food to move in one direction through your digestive system. Peristalsis occurs when the body is using the parasympathetic nervous system (remember: relax and restore). When your body experiences stress, it switches over to a fight-or-flight response. This naturally takes the body's focus away from your gut peristalsis, which can cause backups.
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Your brain and gut are in regular communication with each other. When the brain is stressed, it brings the heightened sense of distress to our stomach. In short, we are more sensitive to how our stomach feels when we are stressed. This was found to be especially true for people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Prolonged high levels of stress can increase stomach acid secretions, which can damage the lining of our gut. Over time, this can lead a variety of problems with digestion and even make you more susceptible to ulcers, which are caused by a specific bacterium. When there is an increase in stomach acid, it also puts more pressure on your lower esophageal sphincter (LES). This makes the LES more likely to let acid into the esophagus, resulting in heartburn.
The cells that line our gut act as a barrier to keeping out things we don't want, like bad bacteria or waste. However, stress can increase the permeability of these cells. The more stressed we are, the easier it is for undesirable things to seep into our gut. This is a phenomenon called leaky gut. Ultimately, this can lead to more inflammation and discomfort.
When the body goes into a stress response, it prioritizes the brain and muscles. Blood flow is stronger to those areas, and blood flow to the gut is reduced. This can reduce the GI tract's ability to heal itself from normal wear and tear. Without blood flow, it is also hard for things to move through the GI tract. This also plays in to why stress can make us backed up. Check out these 8 Food to Help You Debloat for additional relief.
Decrease Good Gut Bacteria
The health of our gut bacteria is affected by what we eat, but also by the general health of our gut. When our GI tract is in distress from all of the previously mentioned symptoms, our good gut bacteria suffer too. Some research has even shown that there is regular communication between the brain-gut axis, the immune system and the gut microbiome. Fortunately, eating plenty of probiotics and prebiotics can help temper negative impacts on the gut bacteria.
Too much stress can have implications for our digestive health. Symptoms like bloating, constipation, heartburn and stomach discomfort may be a sign that you are more stressed than you think. This can result in subtler changes as well, like decreasing your good gut bacteria and increasing stomach acid. Though some stress in daily life is inevitable, there are many ways to manage and minimize it. The review study mentioned above found that melatonin exhibits "important protective effects" against stress-induced damage to the GI tract. Although melatonin supplements haven't been proven to help with sleep, your body naturally produces this sleep hormone when it's dark—a good reason to power down your devices and darken your room to relax before bedtime. Regularly getting 7 hours of sleep can help lessen stress. Another study looked at the effects of occupational stress on the GI tract. Researchers found that people with high-stress jobs, including police officers and air traffic controllers, had higher incidences of GI disorders. This doesn't mean you can't be healthy with a high-stress job; however, it does mean it is important to have an outlet for stress so it doesn't build up. One great option for this that has a slew of health benefits is exercise. Being aware of stress and keeping it in check can make your brain and your gut happier and healthier.