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Stress and Gut Health: Long-Term Effects of a Stressful Life
Life can be quite stressful. As humans in the rat race, we tend to think that stress is part of the gig. Unfortunately, this acceptance is being complicit in your declining health. Stress is more than just fleeting worry. It’s a silent epidemic that’s wiping out our wellness. There is a strong correlation between stress and gut health. Let’s take a look at the long-term effect of stress on the digestive system.
What is the Connection Between Stress and Gut Health?
Ever get a bad feeling in your gut? Your stomach is telling you that something isn’t right. That’s because it isn’t.
We all believe stress is a mental thing. Well, it does affect our second brain. After all, our gut is a pivotal sensory organ for wellness.
Via the gut-brain-axis, the mental anguish we feel in times of stress is reciprocated in our gut biome. Since it’s in our gut, we’re not cognizant of it. However, our microbes are.
Stomach bacteria are deeply affected by our enteric nervous system. This communication system in the gut depends on many of the same neurotransmitters as our central nervous system does 1. So, when our mind feels stress, the enteric nervous system does, as well.
The Role of the Enteric Nervous System in Stress and Gut HealthWhile the enteric nervous system interacts with our brain, that’s not its supposed primary function. We rely on the enteric nervous system to digest our foods.
As soon as food particles hit our tongue, the enteric nervous system calls for digestive enzymes to be produced 2. That way, we can get the nutrients into our bloodstream, toxins into the out-stream, and store energy for later use.
All the while, the enteric nervous system releases hormones that the mind will understand. For instance, your gut may reproduce leptin. This hormone lets the mind you know are full, so you are no longer prompted to gouge down.
Meanwhile, the gut and small intestine decrease the amount of ghrelin it secretes. Ghrelin is the hormone that lets our mind know it’s grub time again 3. Unfortunately, stress throws a wrench in these plans. Essentially, this throws our hormones, mood, and weight off-kilter.
How Stress Disrupts the Enteric Nervous System
While the enteric nervous system is quite complex, it’s part of an even more extensive over-arching network. This communication hub is known as the autonomous nervous system.
Alongside the enteric nervous system are the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. They play a much more active role in creating stress than our old friend, enteric.
When we feel stressed, the sympathetic system secretes our fight-or-flight hormone, cortisol. As stress levels cease, the parasympathetic system kicks in. The parasympathetic system releases feel-good hormones that help promote relaxation 4.
Hormones that help bring balance to a cortisol-filled system include:
Research shows that one of the activators of the parasympathetic system is the vagus nerve 5. The vagus nerve is a communication highway that extends from the bottom of the brainstem to the top of the gut.
Therefore, if we have unhealthy intestinal flora taking over the gut, the vagus nerve will let the parasympathetic system know it’s still fight-or-flight time down there. Once healthy stomach bacteria and immune cells take care of the problem, the vagus nerve lets the parasympathetic system know that the coast is clear.
How Does Stress Affect Gut Health?
When stress becomes chronic, cortisol continues to produce. This overproduction means that other beneficial hormones like melatonin, estrogen, and testosterone aren’t being produced. Therefore, your immune system kicks in.
Your immune cells get very upset when the body is off-balance. As a result, they spark inflammation to fight off potential threats in hopes that the cortisol stream will stop. That way, the gut can get more hormones it needs to help with its primary functions of digesting food, eliminating toxins, and absorbing nutrients.
Long-term stress triggers chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation ultimately leads to more gut and mental health issues.
One analysis summed up the rabbit hole that is stress and gut health with,
“Heightened inflammation and negative attentional bias (AB) are often the results of psychological stress. Acute stressful challenges lead to increases in inflammatory activity and other neurophysiological changes that modulate affective, cognitive, and behavioral processes. Chronic exposure to stressors causes endocrine and immune system dysfunction that contributes to sustained low-grade inflammation, which is involved in the pathogenesis of depressive symptoms 6.”– Front Neurosci.
This analysis shows just how unhealthy chronic stress can be. Let’s take a look at the long-term effects of stress on digestive health.
Long-Term GI Problems Caused by Stress
Thanks to long-term inflammation caused by stress, our gut lining gets compromised. As inflammation rages it on, it loosens the tight junctions on our small intestines. These microscopic holes act as a sieve to keep large particles and toxins out of the gut. However, it allows beneficial nutrients to permeate into the bloodstream.
As the tight junctions get destroyed by inflammation, more toxins can enter the system. Depending on what these toxins are, you may develop a litany of issues.
Some stress-related GI disorders include:
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Ulcerative Colitis
- Stomach Cancer
- Autoimmune Disease
- Skin Conditions
Seeing as approximately 70 million people will experience GI problems at some point in their life, you can safely assume that stress is a likely culprit in each case 7. After all, we all encounter stress every day in various degrees of intensity. As a result, GI problems are likely to intensify when we encounter too much pressure.
How to Combat Stress and Gut Health Problems
When dealing with stress and gut health, it’s important to treat the body as a whole. Start with finding ways to channel the stress first.Combat stress with:• Walking in Nature
With less cortisol in the system, your gut has a fighting chance of survival. However, it still needs you to pull your weight. You need to repair your gut lining to keep toxins at bay.
For one, get your gut tested. Find out which stomach bacteria are in there wreaking havoc. With that knowledge, we can recommend a probiotic that will help you replenish your gut with beneficial stomach bacteria.
Furthermore, we recommend foods that you should eat to create more diversity in your gut. These foods tend to be high in carbohydrates known as prebiotics that act as food for beneficial gut flora.
Research on gut health and stress shows that together, probiotics and prebiotics can help repair stress-related damage 8. The reason why is that with food to eat, the probiotics produce byproducts known as short-chain fatty acids. These beneficial proteins go to great lengths in repairing damaged cells.
A peer-reviewed analysis on stress and gut health stated,
“Considering the plethora of ways in which they can affect the host, it’s not surprising that SCFAs have been implicated in numerous physiological functions such as gastrointestinal functionality, host metabolism, blood‐pressure regulation, circadian rhythm and (neuro)immune function 9.”– The Physiological Society
As you can see by the analysis, probiotics and prebiotics improve circadian rhythm. This is the hormone responsible for sleep. When cortisol levels are high, our circadian rhythm gets thrown off. That alone is just a small example of the connection between stress and gut health. It’s also precisely why you should get your gut checked today.
- 1 Carabotti, M., Scirocco, A., Maselli, M. A., & Severi, C. (2015). The gut-brain axis: interactions between enteric microbiota, central and enteric nervous systems. Annals of gastroenterology, 28(2), 203–209.
- 2 Rao, M., & Gershon, M. D. (2016). The bowel and beyond: the enteric nervous system in neurological disorders. Nature reviews. Gastroenterology & hepatology, 13(9), 517–528. doi:10.1038/nrgastro.2016.107.
- 3 Klok, M D, et al. “The Role of Leptin and Ghrelin in the Regulation of Food Intake and Body Weight in Humans: a Review.” Obesity Reviews : an Official Journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Jan. 2007, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17212793.
- 4 Uvnäs-Moberg, K., Handlin, L., & Petersson, M. (2015). Self-soothing behaviors with particular reference to oxytocin release induced by non-noxious sensory stimulation. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 1529. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01529.
- 5 Breit, S., Kupferberg, A., Rogler, G., & Hasler, G. (2018). Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain-Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders. Frontiers in psychiatry, 9, 44. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00044.
- 6 Maydych V. (2019). The Interplay Between Stress, Inflammation, and Emotional Attention: Relevance for Depression. Frontiers in neuroscience, 13, 384. doi:10.3389/fnins.2019.00384.
- 7 “Digestive Diseases Statistics for the United States.” National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1 Nov. 2014, www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-statistics/digestive-diseases.
- 8 Newman, Tim. “How Fiber and Gut Bacteria Reverse Stress Damage.” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322636.