How stress affects gut health

We take a closer look at how stress affects your gut health, before explaining how to manage your stress levels and protect your microbiome...

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Lisa and Alana Macfarlane, the twins behind gut health platform The Gut Stuff, along with their team of experts, explain how stress affects your gut health..

With recent events in the world, it’s no surprise that research published by Ordnance Survey earlier this year showed a worrying increase in mental health conditions, with one in five experiencing some form of depression (doubling from one in 10 beforehand). Feeling stressed or anxious was the most common manifestation of depression – 84.9 per cent reported this.

We know from research that there are significant correlations between levels of stress and quality of life; more specifically, in the context of gut health and gastrointestinal-related disorders, which up to 40 per cent of us have at any given time! It’s no coincidence that stress and the gut are connected, as there is even a name for the connection: the gut-brain axis.

how stress affects gut health
We are currently living in a modern stress epidemic. Experts also estimate that up to 40 per cent of us struggle with tummy troubles at any one time. It’s no coincidence that stress and the gut are connected.

What is the gut-brain axis?

The ‘gut-brain axis’ describes a back-and-forth communication pathway between the central nervous system and the gastrointestinal tract, which uses signalling hormones and all sorts of other fancy messengers to manage what we do and how we feel daily.

A key player in this set up is your gut microbiome – the community of microorganisms, mostly bacteria, living in your gut. These clever microbes affect the messages sent up and down your body that dictate how you feel. There’s a constant dialogue between them, too, like one of those WhatsApp groups that seems to always be pinging notifications to your phone!

In recent years there has been a surge of research looking at this connection, and while we still have a long way to go towards fully understanding the process, we know that chronic stress can change your microbes and create an environment that favours unhelpful bacteria.

People suffering from depression and anxiety have been found to have less microbial diversity. Plus, to add to that, specific bacteria may also increase the risk of depression and anxiety.

how stress affects gut health
The ‘gut-brain axis’ describes a back-and-forth communication pathway between the central nervous system and the gastrointestinal tract. Because of this connection, your stress levels have a direct impact on your gut health.

How stress affects gut health

Your body doesn’t distinguish between perceived or actual stress: with both, it produces the hormone cortisol. Think of cortisol like an air traffic controller – it effectively diverts, slows or stops metaphorical planes and affects how the airport is running. Here are just a few ways the stress hormone, cortisol, affects your body and gut health:

  1. Cortisol diverts blood away from the gut to your muscles (to fight or run from your stressor).
  2. Stress slows the production of saliva, meaning the enzymes that break down food are reduced, impairing digestion.
  3. An increase in stress decreases prostaglandins, which protect your stomach from acid, so you might have a more sensitive tummy when you are stressed.
  4. Excess cortisol slows digestion or causes diarrhoea, which might mean you aren’t absorbing nutrients as well.
  5. Stress down-regulates your immune system, 70 per cent of which is found in your gut.
  6. Feeling stressed can cause the stomach and oesophagus to spasm. Your body can cope with these things in the short term, but prolonged stress will impact your gut as food won’t be digested as well. This can play havoc on the delicate ecosystem of microbes.

How to reduce stress levels and improve your gut health

Now we know how stress affects gut health, clinical hypnotherapist Ursula James is here to share some tips on how to reduce your stress levels and improve your gut health…

1. Listen to your gut

Research has shown that gut has its own ‘brain’, and is extremely responsive to stress. Over the years, you can develop strong reactions to certain foods once you are stressed. These can cause not only digestive imbalances, but increase anxiety and depression. So, it is important you listen to your gut. It’s called ‘gut instinct’ for a reason!

how stress affects gut health
Noting down any potentially stressful situations for the next day can help you to find ways to cope and feel more prepared.

2. Identify what stresses you

Each night before sleep, make notes of what you have to do the following day – not as events, but rather as potential stress points. It may be waiting for a call on Zoom, trying to get your children to study; whatever it is, make a note. Even doing this helps you be more prepared as your dreams can now look for ways of coping better.

3. Prepare yourself for stressful events

As you get into the habit of writing down stressors (and not just at night, but as they occur to you), you can start to jot down ways of preparing yourself better. This may mean taking two mins to close your eyes and do some deep breathing, or stretching your neck and shoulders.

4. Manage your stressors

Protect yourself from stress with an ‘auric egg’. This is a meditation technique where you create a protective bubble of light around you. This practice can help when you have to deal with stressful people.

5. Do a full body scan

Sit or lie down for five mins and work your way through your body from the tips of your toes to the top of your head. Identify all the parts that are fine. This puts into context an upset gut. By identifying all that is working well, the negative focus on your stomach will subside.

how stress affects gut health
Doing a body scan can help you to recognise how your gut is feeling. It also allows you to identify any places in your body where you may be holding stress or tension.

6. Keep a food diary

Avoiding certain trigger foods isn’t always easy. However, if you can identify which ones are the worst, you can at least prepare yourself for feeling under the weather!

7. Note your moods

Your mood can’t always feel stable if your stomach is upset. If you find yourself feeling down or depressed when this happens, sit down, close your eyes and take two mins to drill down into your thoughts and identify if there is actually anything to worry about.

Looking for more gut health advice? For IBS Awareness Month, we’re giving away free copies of Your Guide to Good Gut HealthClick here to find out more and download your copy.

More inspiration: Gut health diet: your 4-week meal plan