The more we learn about the body and how it functions, the more we understand that it must be treated as a whole. Something that affects one part of your body is likely to have consequences elsewhere, and symptoms that appear in one location might actually be derived from another.
Science is starting to document these enormously complicated connections between various organ systems. You’ve probably heard various terms like the HPA axis, the neuroendocrine system, and the gut-brain axis. All of these (and more) are attempts to make sense of the detailed feedback relationships that exist between various parts of the body.
What does this mean for digestive health? Well, what is happening in your brain can actually have a direct impact on the environment in your gut. It can affect the composition of your gut flora, increase inflammation, leave you vulnerable to pathogens like Candida albicans, and slow your digestion. And don’t forget that this is a two way street. An imbalanced and inflamed gut can contribute to depression and anxiety too.
Reducing your stress levels can improve your digestion and make wide-ranging improvements to your general health. Let’s take a look.
How stress affects your digestive system
Have you ever had a “gut feeling” about something? Researchers are increasingly referring to the gut as our second brain or mini-brain. Remarkably, it contains just as many neurons as the spinal cord, so this is a very apt description. There is a complicated network of neurons, hormones and chemicals that form the gut-brain axis. When you’re stressed out, this network carries signals from the brain that make real, physical changes to the way that your gut operates.
Most of us are aware of the hormone called serotonin. This is the hormone that influences mood. We assume that it comes from the brain, which it does (in part), but 90% of it is actually produced in the digestive system.
If you’re still in any doubt as to how psychological stress can affect your body, just think how your stomach reacts when you’re nervous. Remember those butterflies in the pit of your stomach on your first date, or when you were going for that important job interview? That’s a direct result of the “fight or flight response”, during which the body redirects blood flow away from parts of the digestive tract and towards muscle tissue. That “butterfly” feeling is triggered by decreased blood flow to your stomach.
The short-term fight-or-flight response reprioritizes your internal functions, leading to a slowing of your digestive processes. This is just one of the immediate effects that stress has on your digestion. However, it’s actually chronic, long-term stress that has more serious consequences for your digestive health.
Chronic, long-term stress is much more problematic
Extended psychological stress has been linked to a host of changes in the gut. Research has shown that stress changes the crucial balance of microorganisms that exist in the intestines. This has huge implications for your overall health.
If you’ve ever gone through a long period of stress, you may have noticed that you got sick more often. And when you got sick, chances are you were sicker for longer. One reason for this is that your gut flora forms a very important part of your immune system.
Research has shown that a healthy balance of bacteria in your intestines helps to keep your immune system ‘primed’ and ready. When this balance is disturbed (for example by chronic stress), your immune system is weakened. As this happens, you become more vulnerable to pathogenic organisms like Candida, or other infections.
Although research in humans has been limited, studies on mice have shown that stress leads to very significant changes in the gut flora. The diversity of microorganisms in the gut was reduced, and certain strains of bacteria began to colonize more effectively and aggressively than others. There is a good argument for taking probiotic supplements during stressful times, specifically to counteract this.
Chronic stress doesn’t just lead to weakened immunity. It also has a number of effects that most people would more closely link to the digestive system. GERD, ulcers, and IBS have all been linked to psychological stress. And there are suggestions that chemical changes in the gut may lead to a weakening in the intestinal walls, contributing to Leaky Gut Syndrome.
What can you do about it?
Remember that the gut-brain axis is a two way street. Reducing your stress levels can improve your digestion, but equally, improving your digestion can also affect your mental health. As you’re working to reduce your stress levels, don’t forget to work on rebalancing your gut too. If you have a Candida overgrowth, develop an overall plan for tackling both your digestive and psychological health.
Here are a few simple strategies for reducing your stress levels.
Identify your stressors
What is causing your stress? Is it family, relationships, work, or something else? Write out a list of the things that are negatively affecting your life, and another list of the things that are having a more positive impact. Next step: try to reduce your exposure to the negatives and increase your exposure to the positives!
At heart, we’re all social animals. Loneliness is one of the biggest stressors of all, so put yourself out there and build some strong relationships. These can be people that you know already, or new friends that you can find through shared interests.
Staying active is one of the easiest ways to improve your digestion, but it can really cut down on your stress levels too. Simply getting outside is a great stress reliever, along with being one of the best preventative medicines that you’ll find.
Are you getting 7-9 hours sleep? Or just surviving on 5 hours a night? Getting enough sleep is crucial to lowering your stress levels and improving your health. Make sure that your sleep environment is dark and restful; don’t take your computer or TV into the bedroom; and avoid drinking or eating any stimulants in the afternoon.