Impact of Stress on Gut Health

Anywhere from 40% to 60% of people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) suffer from stress and conversely, those that suffer with stress often have IBS symptoms. High levels of stress can potentially cause gastrointestinal distress even in people who don’t have IBS, leading to discomfort and a lower quality of life. For those who face chronic stress, there are steps you can take to maintain gut health.

How Stress Affects Gut Health

When you are stressed, your brain sends signals to your adrenal glands, which release chemicals called glucocorticoids. One of these glucocorticoids is cortisol.

Cortisol is partly responsible for your body’s fight-or-flight response, and it also causes your colon to spasm, leading to stomach cramps and discomfort that might trigger your IBS or IBD symptoms, including:

  • Constipation
  • Gas
  • Bloating
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea

Cortisol and other glucocorticoids affect the cells that connect gut neurons to each other, triggering them. These cells (called glial cells) release molecules that trigger immune cells that deal with pathogens and can lead to symptoms of gut distress.

Additionally, cortisol can keep immature gut neurons from developing correctly, causing these neurons to be unable to send out strong signals telling your gut muscles to contract. As a result, food moves much more slowly through the digestive system and creates even more discomfort.

Any type of psychological stress that releases glucocorticoids like cortisol can worsen gut inflammation as well, presenting a paradox. Glucocorticoids, when used as part of short-term treatments for IBS, can help reduce inflammation, so how can they also cause it? The answer is that being chronically exposed to glucocorticoids creates a shift in your system, transforming them into the source of inflammation.

Another concern is that psychological stress, as well as depression, can increase your gut’s permeability, which can allow harmful bacteria, partially digested food, toxins, and fecal matter to make their way into your circulation. This can also worsen inflammation and trigger immune responses.

Management of Stress for Better Digestion

Keeping your gut health at its best requires that you rely on a variety of treatment options, including stress management techniques.

Stress management techniques like exercise can help. Exercise can lower the levels of cortisol in your body, helping to reduce gut inflammation and manage the symptoms of IBS better. It doesn’t have to be a strenuous form of exercise to be helpful, even a walk will do wonders to relieve stress.

Mindfulness practices like mindful meditation can also help improve gut health. When combined with deep breathing techniques, mindfulness meditation can help lower inflammatory reactions in the body. For many people, doing a few deep breathing exercises before eating can be a great way to calm your body prior to your meal.

Getting sufficient good quality sleep is also important for your gut health. Sleep can help reduce cortisol levels, leading to the reduction of gastrointestinal discomfort and an increase in mental clarity.

It is also crucial that you understand how your gut works and how to keep it healthy by choosing the right foods. Adding probiotics to your diet can add good bacteria to your gut microbiome, and even if those strains don’t colonize the gut, they can help to create a better overall gut environment, which promotes gut health.

Give Your Gut Health a Boost

If you struggle with symptoms of unbalanced gut bacteria, stress can make them worse. Learning about the right changes you can make to your lifestyle and to your diet is vital for reducing your symptoms and improving your quality of life.

At EverVital Nutrition, we offer programs to help you test and diagnose which organisms are out of balance and then to fix what’s wrong. We’ve helped hundreds optimize their gut health, and we can help you!  Contact EverVital today to chat about our options.

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