We know that stress affects us physiologically. Our heart and breathing rates goes up, and it can cause our blood pressure to rise as well. When we are stressed, our nervous system instructs our bodies to release hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline which help us cope. However, left unchecked, chronic stress can lead to heart disease, high-blood pressure, diabetes, poor sleep, gut barrier dysfunction, a.k.a. ‘leaky gut’ and obesity.
For more on stress, read by other post: Adaptogens. Can They Really Help To Reduce Stress?
But are you aware of how much of an impact stress has on your digestive system? Subconsciously, you probably already knew this. How else would you explain why your stomach reacts when you are filled with emotions? It’s called the gut-brain connection/axis.
Gut Brain Axis
Those “butterflies in your stomach” are physical reactions in your body when you feel strong emotions such as elation, sadness, anger, and anxiety. It’s the intimate connection/interaction between your gut and your brain that has lead to everyday expressions such as “feeling sick to my stomach”; you literally feel abdominal pain and/or comfortableness when you are stressed.
The enteric nervous system is the network of nerves found throughout the digestive tract. It’s pretty impressive when you stop to think about it. There are about 84 to 100 million neurons (compared to the brain which has about 86 billion). This neural network is referred to as the “second brain” for a reason. Just like your brain, it communicates with your central nervous system via the vagus nerve and neurotransmitters.
Fun fact: most neurotransmitters are produced in the gut and not the brain
When you’re happy and stress-free, your digestive system goes about its daily routine. It’s digesting food, moving it along with coordinated contractions (peristalsis), producing neurotransmitters, secreting digestive acid and enzymes in appropriate amounts etc. all to help you maintain good health.
Because digestion is controlled by the central nervous system, it can be negatively impacted with increased stress levels. The stress we associate with mental challenges, changes in our emotions and psychological state result cause the stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin which, are responsible for the “fight or flight” response, to rise. Under these conditions, blood flow to the gut decreases as blood vessels constrict and the enteric nervous system becomes overactive. As a result, digestive muscle contractions can increase or decrease leading to changes in bowel movements. Stress also affects how other organs, such as the liver, gallbladder and stomach function too.
The stress response contributes to changes in gastrointestinal secretions, including changes in intestinal microflora balance causing inflammation in your digestive system. Stress can affect the integrity of your gut lining making you more susceptible to gut barrier dysfunction, a.k.a. “leaky gut”
What can you do?
Understanding how stress impacts your gut is the first step. Being stressed out isn’t just an inconvenience or something to downplay; it does affect your overall health and long term, will hurt your gut/digestive tract which can lead to issue of gut inflammation, increase risk for infections, increased sickness and aggravated poor mood and mental health issues. Working with a gut/brain health expert can help you to address the whole picture: gut and brain. Because they are connected, you cannot have the health of one while ignoring or at the expense of the other. They are one unit and need to be treated as such!
Learning to manage your stress levels is crucial to lowering stress and its impact on your health