We all know by now that being under stress day after day ain’t good for us. Our bodies are built for short, sudden bursts of stress like running away from sabre-tooth tigers, not for the near-constant, low-level stress that is modern life in the 21st century: work deadlines, office politics, school exams, extended families, the list goes on.
But how does stress effect the gut in particular? If you’re struggling with gut-related health issues, should stress-relief be on your radar? And is it even possible to be less stressed in this day and age, or is it just an unavoidable fact of life?
The Gut-Brain Connection
On some level, we all realize a link between our emotions and how our gut feels. Common phrases reflect that link: ‘I had a feeling in my gut.’ ‘It was a gnawing sensation in my stomach…’
These instinctive feelings come from a place of deep, inner intelligence and help us to avoid nasty situations.
The gut is an integral part of the nervous system, connected to the brain by intricate nerve pathways and neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine.
Scientific studies are now providing firm evidence that problems in our gut are linked to psychiatric issues like autism, anxiety, depression and schizophrenia.
The Stress Effect
When we live with constant stress, it begins to eat away at the lining of our gut – quite literally. Living with stress or letting stress get to us can lead to a multitude of gut-related problems, such as:
• Increased food intolerances
• constipation or diarrhea
• acid reflux, also known as gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD)
• leaky gut, where undigested proteins and other bacterial toxins make their way through the intestinal wall into the body.
• peptic ulcer disease
• irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
• bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine (SIBO)
The gut appears to be particularly sensitive to the damaging effects of stress, perhaps because it is so closely connected to our mental and emotional state via the gut-brain connection.
For more info check out How Stress Wreaks Havoc On Your Microbiome
Coping with Stress
LIFE is stressful, right? We often have to deal with a high-stress job while managing complicated personal finances and strained family relationships.
Maybe you’re raising a family while trying to start your own business, or your boss is nightmare and you’re constantly living from paycheck to paycheck, unsure if you can make the next mortgage payment. Or perhaps you’re dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder after a horrible event.
Whatever your personal combination of stressors, learning to handle the stress skilfully is key to improving your gut health. Once your gut is in better shape, your whole body will be fitter and stronger, and you’ll be more resilient against stress.
Stress CAN be managed and handled in a positive way. The first step is to acknowledge that it plays a crucial role in your health and wellbeing. The next step is actively give some thought to the best stress-busting strategies for you.
Taking Care of Our Microbiome
While it’s true that stress damages our microbiome, it also works in reverse. When our microbiome is in good shape it actually makes us more resilient to stress. We go into this in more detail here.
People who have high levels of:
• vitamin A
• vitamin D
in their systems have been shown to have less problems with mood disorders and better overall health. They can actually make you more resilient to stress.
A probiotic is a supplement containing friendly bacteria to boost your gut health. You can also get these friendly bacteria from fermented foods like yoghurt and sauerkraut. Take a look at Two Superfoods To Heal Your Gut That You Can Make Yourself
Getting up and getting moving is a proven stress reducer. Aiming for at least 30 minutes of movement five times a week is a good goal.
Even mild exercise like walking the dog is very effective, and a vigorous workout is great too. Exercise pumps endorphins through the body and lowers cortisol levels, enabling the body to cope with stress better.
We carry stress and trauma in our body, and it can actually be stored up for years, leading to insidious depression or explosive anger.
Practices like yoga and tai chi enable us to work into the body in a systematic way, releasing pent-up energy. They also include deep-breathing techniques to help us let go of chronic tension that we may not even know we’re carrying.
Mindfulness and meditation
These are all about learning how to be free from compulsive, stressful thinking.
Sometimes people misunderstand meditation, believing they’re being told ‘not to think’ but really it’s about creating space in the mind, and learning not to believe every negative thought that pops into our head.
Through meditation we re-train our consciousness so that we become more present in life from moment to moment, instead of constantly fretting about unpaid bills or whether our bum will look fat on the beach this summer!
Keeping a daily “stress journal” can help point out causes and triggers of stress in your life. Each evening, write down the stress you had during the day and what caused it (or your best guess if you don’t know for sure).
Then, write down how you felt both emotionally and physically. Write down how you reacted to the stress. Did you perhaps overreact and make things worse? What did you do to make yourself feel better?
As you revies your journal, take note of your current coping techniques. Are they working for you? Are they contributing to your overall well-being? If not, it’s time to figure out new strategies.
It’s been proven that people with a stronger social life actually live longer. Just don’t cancel out the benefits by going overboard on that social lubricant, alcohol!
Leaning on a friend or family member who is a trustworthy confidant can help to give you perspective with the stress in your life and help you know you aren’t alone, which helps to make stress more manageable.
Making time for fun and relaxation: can really help to cut through stress, whether you’re alone or with friends and family. Having hobbies and interests outside of the things that cause stress in your life can give you a new focus and a positive outlet for your energies.
Stress management is one more reason to make sure you have a high amount of friendly bacteria in your daily diet!
Take Action Today
Look at the root causes of stress in your life and makes some changes, be bold!
Where you aren’t able to change the cause of stress, change your attitude instead. What lessons can you learn from the stress?
Could you become more skillful in how you respond? Does flying off the handle really help? Accept the things you cannot change, like the weather or other people being offensive from time to time!
Adopt a healthy lifestyle with a combination of diet and attitude. A clean diet will nourish your state of mind, and your state of mind will help you stick to the diet.
Stress reduction can make a real difference to your gut and overall health. Whatever your life situation there are meaningful steps you can take. Although stress will always be a part of life, it doesn’t have to rule your life or your gut!