Stress And Gut Health: How To Manage It
Nov 10, 2023
You have probably noticed a pattern; when you are stressed you need to use the toilet more frequently, especially if you suffer from conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
The thing is, if you suffer from IBS symptoms, using the toilet more frequently can reinforce your stress levels because you become more conscious of your stress and it drives up anxiety, especially if you are at work or there isn’t a toilet nearby.
It’s a vicious cycle, but fear not because there are things you can do to lighten the load (in more ways than one).
JUVIA works hard to improve gut health for everyone and to spread the good news that no one needs to suffer from uncomfortable symptoms any longer. In this article, we will discuss some of the science that links the impact of stress on gut health and we will provide you with some helpful tips to manage your stress levels.
If you follow the simple steps in this guide, you should notice a difference in your gut health, but remember, if you are suffering from chronic stress, it is important to reach out and get professional help.
There are qualified professionals who are trained to deal with every kind of challenge, so don’t suffer in silence - your mental and emotional help matters and you are not alone.
The gut-brain axis
It is well understood that your brain and your gut are connected through a network of neurons and they communicate.
You might be tempted to conclude that your brain does all the signalling and your gut simply reacts, but actually, the communication is bi-directional, meaning that your gut talks to your brain too. Ever wondered where that gut feeling comes from? Well, now you know.
Your gut has as many neurons as your brain and it is responsible for producing as much as 90% of your serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates important functions in your body, including your mood, sleep, and even your levels of optimism. It is no wonder that most treatments for depression focus on regulating and influencing your serotonin and its signalling.
That said, you can see how your gut health might influence your mental and emotional health. When your gut health is in disarray the knock-on effect is that you begin to think and feel differently, and this impacts the decisions you make, which further impacts your gut health.
Taking the view that your gut health and mental health are two sides of the same coin and both sides need a little polishing, you will be on your merry way to improving your life.
First, let’s look at how stress impacts the body.
How your body responds to stress
Your body is highly complex and there is still much that we don’t quite understand yet, but science is updating itself constantly and our knowledge is improving.
What we do know is that hormones play an important role and when you are stressed, both your gut and brain are triggered into altering your hormone levels.
For example, stress triggers a part of your brain called the hypothalamus to release a hormone called ‘corticotrophin-releasing hormone’ (CRH) which can trigger further bodily responses.
To illustrate, CRH can have the following effects on your gut:
- Inflammation - When your gut becomes inflamed it makes the intestinal wall more permeable, which means your blood absorbs particles that it shouldn’t, including toxins. This triggers an immune response and the release of histamine as a defence.
- Sensitivity of the gut wall - this is the abdominal pain you experience after you have eaten something that triggers you. Both CRH and histamine impact your sensitivity and this manifests as the pain that you experience.
Histamine naturally occurs at barrier sites to protect you, but when there is an overload it increases your sensitivity to pain to discourage you from eating that item of food. That’s how your body communicates with you to tell you to change your behaviour, i.e. what you eat.
- Increased gut motility - this causes the urgency to use the toilet and can result in greater water absorption in your GI tract, which translates into diarrhoea symptoms.
- Changes to your gut microbiota - CRH can reduce the number of good bacteria in your gut, which causes an imbalance. Imbalances in your gut disrupt several important functions like your serotonin and sleep, which increase your stress levels and trigger the release of more CRH and it becomes a problematic cycle.
- Mucus secretion - CRH can impact the amount of mucus produced in your gut, which is essential for regulating your gut’s internal environment.
When CRH is released and absorbed by its receptor, it triggers another part of your brain called the pituitary gland which regulates the release of cortisol from your adrenal glands, which sit just above your kidneys.
When cortisol is released it increases the absorption of water and sodium in the colon and rectum, making your stools (poo) harder and difficult to move. This explains why some people experience constipation when they are inflamed.
Tips to manage stress
There are a number of ways to manage your stress and the good news is that they are free and can easily be incorporated into your daily routine. With a little time and practice, you will undoubtedly notice a meaningful change in your perceived stress levels and this will inevitably lead to a reduction in your symptoms. In short, you can break the cycle and take charge of your gut-brain health.
These methods are focused on ancient Eastern philosophies of generating self-awareness through breathing mindfully and reconnecting with nature. Let’s take a closer look.
- Meditation - There are numerous ways to practice meditation, so you can choose the style that most suits you. In essence, they all centre around practicing stillness, while quieting the mind and focusing on your breathing. Deliberate and mindful breathing regulates the parasympathetic nervous system and it can bring about a sense of calm quite quickly. Also, the more you do it, the easier it is to enter the mental space that brings about all of meditation’s benefits. Some people like to meditate in complete silence, while others like to be guided through the process. You can also meditate to special music called binaural beats that are designed around frequencies that promote brain waves associated with relaxation or alertness. Check out our guide to meditation.
- Yoga - Yoga is a mind and body practice that incorporates stretching into your breathing exercises. It can be said to be an active form of meditation where the focus is more on your external body and your experience of it during the various poses, rather than your internal world. It can help improve flexibility, reduce aches and pains, and deepen your connection to your body.
Mindfulness practices have proven to directly impact your gut health in a positive way, so don’t overlook the benefits of a good stretch and some focused breathing. Even 10 minutes daily, preferably first thing in the morning or just before bed can do wonders for your mental health.
- Sleep - A good night of sleep does wonders for your mental, emotional and physical health. Sleep is still a world of mystery behaviour that isn’t fully understood, but we do know that so much of our healing and growth comes from sleep. Unfortunately, for most people living in the modern world, sleep is something we sacrifice far too willingly for other less important pursuits, be it work, social events, or even watching a film, but sleeping is probably one of the most important things you will ever do.When you sleep your body goes into restoration mode so that you are ready to take on the day ahead. When you miss out on sleep you have less wakeful energy so your body craves high-calorie foods that aren’t very good for you. This has a two-fold impact. Firstly, by eating poor-quality foods that are high in sugar or trans fats, you will disturb the balance of your gut microbiome. When your gut isn’t balanced it won’t perform as well and this will lead to you having less serotonin because your gut produces 90% of your serotonin.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that acts as a hormone. Did you know that your serotonin produces your melatonin - the hormone responsible for inducing your sleep? It stands to reason that the less serotonin that you have, the less able you are to produce melatonin.
Think about this for a moment, your diet can affect your sleep, and your sleep can affect your diet, and both have a serious impact on your mental and emotional health. It should be clear that it is essential to optimise them.
- Grounding - This is the practice of connecting your bare feet to the ground for a duration of time. Wearing footwear is a relatively new practice in evolutionary terms; our ancestors roamed the earth on their bare feet and this connection with the earth is beneficial. Grounding allows your body to absorb the negative charge of the earth. The benefits of this are improved sleep, pain reduction, healing, lower anxiety, thinner blood, and much more. It might sound a little hocus-pocus but the science is clear - grounding is good for you. You can now buy trainers that are designed for grounding, and you can buy bed sheets that can be grounded too. Take every opportunity that you have to ground. Your body will thank you for it.
- Forest bathing - This simple practice is actually prescribed by doctors in Japan. It involves getting out into nature and disconnecting from your modern life. Being in the woods for at least 30 minutes reduces anxiety and instils a sense of calm. Looking up at the trees also engages your brain in a way that is positive for your mental health. The health benefits of being in nature are now observed and documented in science. The verdict is clear, more time outside is good for physical and mental health.
Stress is something that affects us all in our daily lives and it is clear that it has a negative consequence on our physical and mental health. The gut-brain axis makes a clear case for safeguarding our gut health as a means to improve our mental health.
The tips provided in this guide may sound elementary but let’s not forget that modern humans are very disconnected from nature’s path, a path that we walked for so much longer than the digital worlds we now live in.
By going back to basics and reconnecting with yourself and nature, your body will restore its natural balance. You will notice yourself improving and it will feel good.
Here at JUVIA, we care deeply about your well-being. Our purpose is to see everyone thrive and enjoy their short stay on this little blue and green rock that we call Earth.
It is difficult to imagine that we, as natural beings, will achieve that without living as nature intended. So, take some time out from your modern lives, reconnect with yourselves and nature, and find the solace that you so validly deserve.