nmo-gut-health-journal

How stress affects your gut (and what to do about it)

March 05, 2016 Amy Bradney George

Emotions play a huge role in our physical health, affecting everything from our muscles and posture to our hormones and mineral absorption. Stress, in particular, is a major issue, as it has become a chronic part of modern life for many people.

To understand how it affects our digestive system – and how we can help support our gut in times of stress – we first need to take a look at what stress is all about. 

What is stress?

In evolutionary terms, stress is actually designed to be a powerful and important (even valuable) response to danger. It saved our ancestors lives by sharpening their senses and reactions so that they could escape from things like wild animals, or find a way to make shelter against violent weather.

These days, there are no sabre toothed tigers roaming around, and while the weather can still be crazy, we’re much safer in our homes (at least in Western society) than our ancestors ever were. But while we have evolved in our ways of living, our bodies’ reactions have not changed that much when it comes to stress.

That means your body reacts in a similar way, regardless of whether you are being attacked by a wild animal, racing to meet a deadline at work or even doing intense physical exercise: your heart races, your breathing quickens, cortisol is released, your muscles tense up and blood rushes to your limbs to help you run away. 

Stress and your gut

The physiological response our bodies have to stress puts intense pressure on our bodies, and our gut is significantly affected by it. Some of the most common gastrointestinal symptoms that can come from chronic stress include:

  • Inflammation
  • Indigestion
  • Loose bowel movements
  • Constipation
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Changes in gut bacteria (microflora)
  • Food intolerances and/or allergies

In extreme cases, chronic stress has even been linked to the development of conditions such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), peptic ulcer disease and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).

These changes – in particular in gut bacteria – lead to all kinds of other potential health issues, including weakened immune systems and nutrient or mineral deficiencies. 

How to support your gut in times of stress 

With so many potential problems arising from stress in modern society, it’s important to make sure we look after our gut – whether the stress is short-term or ongoing. There’s two key ways to do this:

Lifestyle changes

Making changes to encourage a less stressful lifestyle will lead to significant and ongoing benefits for your gut health (and your whole self). This could include:

  • Practising meditation or yoga
  • Incorporating other gentle physical exercise into your day
  • Setting aside time for friends and family every week; or
  • Scheduling in a massage or bath on a regular basis

Dietary changes

As our gut health can be compromised when we experience stress, nourishing our bodies becomes even more important. Some of the dietary things that can help include:

  • Incorporating more leafy greens into meals (great for getting minerals such as magnesium)
  • Eating more freshly-made meals (for maximum nutrient content)
  • Prioritising vegetables and fruits over pre-packaged or processed foods
  • Having probiotic drinks such as kefir or kombucha
  • Including more fermented foods, such as kimchi, sauerkraut or kimchi in your meals
  • Reducing the amount of refined sugar you eat (as it has a negative impact on gut health)
  • Including specific vitamin supplements or probiotics in your diet

While some of these changes can be made easily on your own, it’s also important to discuss your options with a certified medical professional, dietician or naturopath. That way you can get advice and a management plan that is suited to your individual circumstances and physiological makeup.

Image credit: Sodanie Chea.



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