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Gut Feelings: The Link Between Stress and Digestive Health

Gut Feelings: The Link Between Stress and Digestive Health

When we think about stress, we often imagine headaches, tense muscles, or feeling overwhelmed. But did you know that stress can also affect your gut health? It might sound surprising, but our gut and our brain are interconnected, and stress can have a big impact on our digestive system.

Understanding the Gut-Brain Connection

First things first, let’s talk about what we mean by the “gut.” Your gut is basically your digestive system, including your stomach and intestines. It’s where food gets broken down and nutrients are absorbed into your body.

Now, the gut and the brain have a different relationship than other organs. They are connected by both the enteric nervous system (ENS) and gut-brain axis. The ENS is also known as the second brain, because of its complexity and its ability to operate independently of the brain and spinal cord. The gut-brain axis is like a communication highway between your brain and your digestive system. This communication involves the ENS but also includes other components like the gut microbes (microbiota), the body’s stress response, and immune systems. They send messages back and forth, influencing each other in surprising ways.

How Stress Affects Your Gut

When you’re stressed, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode. This means your body is preparing to deal with a threat, whether it’s real or imagined. Your heart rate goes up, your muscles tense, and your breathing gets faster. These responses are largely triggered by the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. 

These hormones can have a big impact on your gut ecosystem by altering gut motility (how quickly food moves through your gut), increasing intestinal permeability (aka leaky gut syndrome), and disrupting the balance of microbes in your gut. Your gut is home to trillions of microbes including bacteria, fungi, archaea, and viruses, which is collectively referred to as the microbiome.

These microorganisms work together to contribute to various vital functions, such as the digestion of food, immune system modulation, enteric nervous system input, and the production of essential vitamins and nutrients. Stress can disrupt this system’s delicate balance and lead to physical symptoms like digestive issues, such as bloating, constipation, or diarrhea. and impact your mood, immune system, and hormone balance.

Tips for Managing Stress to Support Your Gut

Now that we understand how stress can affect our gut, let’s talk about what we can do to manage it and keep you healthy:

  • Practice relaxation techniques: Try deep breathing, meditation, or yoga to help calm your mind and body.
  • Get moving: What’s the tip? Aim to move most days throughout the week for at least 30 minutes. Exercise is a great way to relieve stress and support overall health, including your gut.
  • Eat a healthy diet: Focus on whole, minimally or unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. These foods provide important nutrients for your gut bacteria. To learn more, check out Practical Nutrition Tips for Educators and Public Service Workers with Dr. Adrian Chavez.
  • Get enough sleep: Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night. Sleep is important for managing stress and supporting a healthy gut. Sleep is vital for managing stress, regulating immune function, maintaining a healthy gut microbiota, supporting optimal digestive function, and facilitating communication within the gut-brain axis.
  • Limit caffeine and alcohol: Try to avoid caffeinated and alcoholic drinks. Caffeine and alcohol irritate the gut lining, disrupt gut microbiota balance, and increase stress hormone levels, exacerbating gastrointestinal distress and contributing to heightened stress levels.
  • Seek support: Talk to friends, family, or a mental health professional if you’re feeling overwhelmed by stress.

By taking steps to manage stress and support our gut health, we can improve our overall well-being and feel better both physically and mentally.

As we celebrate Stress Awareness Month, let’s remember the important connection between stress and our gut, and take action to support both.

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