As I’m writing this post, for the first time since I started this blog over a year ago, I’m feeling a bit stressed about finishing in time for my regular Tuesday posting schedule. I’ve been working on this series, Why Gut Health Matters, for 6 weeks now, and here in the final stretch, I’m feeling the heat — entirely self-imposed heat, but heat nonetheless.
And how appropriate to start the post this way when I’m sharing the deep connection between gut health and stress. Research is showing that we’re feeling it more than ever, and starting at younger ages than generations before us. While moderate stress from time to time is normal and healthy, it’s chronic stress, both physical and emotional, that can create serious health consequences. And the feedback loop between the gut and the brain can manifest those consequences in myriad ways.
We know from weeks past that there’s a direct line of communication from the brain to the gut and back to the brain again. We know that the enteric nervous system is capable of functioning on its own — without the aid or instruction of the central nervous system. We know that the feeling of butterflies in the stomach right before a race, speech, or performance is an actual physical phenomenon — stress or nervousness actually affects what’s going on in our gut, and that physical sensation is the manifestation of some of those effects.
Worrying Yourself Sick
We’ve all heard that phrase — and we can all probably recall an instance in our lives when we’ve felt it for one reason or another. While situational stress can be appeased by a returned phone call or a safe return of a loved one, what’s happening physically in our bodies might take a bit longer to return to normal. And it’s the chronic, cumulative effect of unyielding stress that causes major damage.
As I said in so many words above, stress alters gut function. It inhibits the production of stomach acid (which can cause SIBO), slows down peristalsis (the movement of digested food), which in turn can lengthen transit time and cause constipation. Interestingly, it can also cause overactive bowels and diarrhea as well. And it can actually increase sensitivity to movements in the gut as well — think painful gas or cramping.
At the same time, the hormonal response to stress in the body can begin a cascade of negative consequences in the overall system, including: leaky gut, toxic liver overload, leaky brain, and eventually systemic disease. You really can worry yourself sick.
I don’t want to get too deep into the chemistry of the hormonal stress response, but I do want to highlight a very important hormone involved: cortisol. If you’ve heard of Metabolic Syndrome, you’ve heard of cortisol. If you’ve been concerned about your heart health, you’ve heard of cortisol. And if you have extra weight around your midsection and have seen a doctor about it, you’ve probably heard of cortisol.
Released from the adrenal cortex, cortisol is part of the normal stress response. It’s necessary and has its place in our system as a glucose regulator and anti-inflammatory. But when stress is chronic, we can experience adrenal fatigue due to an overproduction of cortisol. Surges of cortisol can kill brain cells, increase belly fat, initiate insulin resistance, suppress the immune system, cause muscle cramps, water retention, hypertension, frequent urination, and foggy-headedness — just to name a few.
When we’re extremely stressed for long periods of time, our adrenals can go from fatigued to entirely burnt out — they begin producing inadequate levels of cortisol, leading to a different set of symptoms: low energy, low sex drive, and weight gain. Earlier, I mentioned the brain-gut feedback loop; well there’s one here too between the adrenals and the gut — a sick gut causes sick adrenals, and sick adrenals cause a sick gut. When we aren’t producing enough cortisol, we are allowing inflammation to run rampant in the gut, and we are at greater risks of developing inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and IBS.
In other words, we’re looking for that cortisol sweet spot: not too high, not too low. We want to keep our adrenals healthy by mitigating not only the stress in our lives, but also on our bodies. This same cascade of negative effects happens whether you’re on constant deadlines at work, in the middle of a divorce, or constantly eating McDonald’s for dinner.
Stress and Gut Health
“Experimental studies show that psychological stress stagnates normal small intestinal transit time, encourages overgrowth of bacteria, and compromises the intestinal barrier” (source)
The results are in. Stress inflames the gut. It causes gut dysbiosis, reducing the numbers of beneficial bacteria in the gut (such as Bacteroides) and increasing the number of harmful ones such as Clostridium Dificil (aka: C. Diff, which can cause a very nasty infection if allowed to fester). And as I’ve said in nearly every segment of this series, when gut bacteria is out of balance, the gut lining suffers. When the gut lining leaks, an inflammatory immune response is set off, creating the potential for food allergies, IBS, nutrient malabsorbtion, skin disorders, and ultimately a leaky brain.
One Bite at a Time
Taming the stress in our every day lives can feel impossible. After all, we can’t control what goes on around us — the deadlines, the traffic, the money crunch, the screaming baby, the laundry, the dishes — it just goes on and on! How to avoid stress when we can’t avoid the stressors?
It might take commitment, but it’s not a magic trick. As they say, the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. I have four overarching tips for reducing and managing stress, with the caveat that I am by no means an expert at any of them. I work consciously on them nearly every day, but I have far from mastered them (except maybe the one that involves playing with Dexter).
Reduce Physical Stress in Every Way Possible
Physical stress reduces our ability to handle emotional stress, and it has fewer uncontrollable variables. I know from personal experience that my hand injury at its worst dramatically shortened my fuse and made even simple decisions a lot more challenging. But we can control a number of physical stressors on the body.
- We can control what we eat. If we know we have an allergy or sensitivity to certain foods, we can decide to stay away from those foods and replace them with more nourishing alternatives. Avoiding inflammatory foods like sugar and processed flours and oils is another way to ensure that we aren’t adding unnecessary physical stress to our bodies.
- We can control how much we move. Prolonged sitting has been shown to be more hazardous to our health than smoking. Getting up and moving around also increases the feel-good hormones in our bodies and helps us get through the day with more pep in our step. Have you ever noticed that after a full day’s work of sitting in front of the computer, you’re wiped out getting in the car to drive home, but on the weekends when you’re out and about, you have so much more energy? Jokes about work aside, there’s a reason for that — sitting is exhausting and physically stressful.
- We can listen to our bodies. This is so hard sometimes, but often our bodies know what’s best for us. We just have to learn to listen and respond accordingly. Part of that is setting up a sound ergonomic work station, taking a break when our eyes are tired from the screen, stretching our wrists, shoulders, and necks after computer sessions, and paying attention when we need a little extra rest.
Create a Sleep Conducive Life
In part 3 of this series (your mood), we talked about the importance of consistent sleep to keep the gut lining sealed. Maintaining a solid sleep routine is also important for lowering cortisol levels and allowing the body to clean up inflammation in the system. Without it, we are at greater risk of developing
a number of diseases, including cancer, type 2 diabetes, depression, and anxiety. Stress disrupts our sleep, keeps cortisol levels high throughout the night, and in turn prevents the body from doing the restorative work it’s mean to do in those hours of nightly rest.
Even though I’ve mentioned the value of sleep in nearly every segment of this series and have already dedicated two full posts to the topic outside of that (here’s the first and here’s the second), it’s so important I’m mentioning it again. Creating an environment in the bedroom that is conducive to proper, restful sleep and reducing device use late into the evening are two steps you can take now to improve your sleep quality. Working on quantity is a slightly bigger challenge, but you can get there through planning and learning to say no when you need to.
Make Room for Mindfulness
With some false starts over the past year or so, I’ve recently embarked on my own mindfulness journey. It can be a challenge to take time every day, but creating awareness moment to moment is the first step toward a more mindful life. Mindfulness and stress aren’t mutually exclusive, but the former can certainly tamp down the effects of the latter. Scientific studies are proving it.
Cultivate Joy and Pleasure
This is where playing with Dexter comes in! Find something that you love — whether it’s taking care of a pet, growing a garden, sitting in the park with a book, or taking a pottery class. Find something that lights you up and make it a priority in your life. Cultivating pleasure is critical to stress management. In our day-to-day lives, especially for parents and caregivers, it’s easy to forget that your needs need to be a priority. And I’m not talking about survival needs, although I’ve heard many people say “I’m so busy I forgot to eat lunch.” No doubt lunch is important, but what we forget is that joy is important. Whether it’s through creative expression, experiencing nature, or laughing at a comedy show, joy is the stuff of life, and when we’re bogged down, it’s a great way to find some relief.
Friday will seal the deal for this series! I’m exciting to share a little project I’ve been working on to sum up this series and capture it in a way that will help you tell your friends all about what you’ve learned over the last six weeks. Get excited, and have a great, low-stress, joy-filled week!
Sources for this segment of this series include a 6-credit continuing education seminar presented by Merrily Kuhn, RN, CCRN (r), PhD, ND, PhD and the Institute of Brain Potential (bibliography and references can be viewed here), and information from the following articles, journals, and experts:
Chris Kresser: http://chriskresser.com/
Dr. Sara Gottfried: http://www.saragottfriedmd.com/
Jordan and Steve from the SCD Lifestyle: http://scdlifestyle.com/