Whether you have extensive family responsibilities, a demanding job, or simply a lot going on in your life, stress is a relatively normal aspect of modern existence. While occasional stress is expected (and in some cases, healthy), constant stress can present some serious effects to nearly all aspects of your health, from your mental health to your muscles. Stress also has a significant impact on the gut and digestive health. Discover how stress can significantly affect gastrointestinal health below.
The Debilitating Effects of Stress
Stress is a natural response to perceived threats and is tied to the body’s “fight or flight” response. While an attacking predator is different from a massive workload, your body treats both as a potential threat. The hypothalamus initiates the process by signaling the adrenal glands to release various stress hormones, particularly adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline increases heart rate, blood pressure, and energy reserves. Cortisol, which is the main stress hormone in the body, boosts glucose levels in the blood, expedites your brain’s use of that glucose, and increases the availability of compounds designed to repair tissue.
Cortisol also temporarily inhibits any nonessential or potentially detrimental functions in a fight-or-flight scenario, diverting that energy to your immediate survival needs. This results in changes to the immune response as well as suppression of many other organ systems. This response also results in mood changes.
These biological processes are based on instinctive behaviors designed to keep you alive, but when you are constantly under stress, your body is unable to turn off that fight or flight response. That results in a constant, steady flood of cortisol and other stress hormones that can interrupt your body’s normal processes. This can result in:
- Occasional headaches
- Weight gain
- Cardiovascular concerns
- Trouble sleeping
- Occasional memory and concentration difficulties
These negative effects extend throughout the gut and digestive system.
Stress and Your Gut
Stress has a significant impact on your gut and digestion, and much of that comes from the complex, bidirectional link between your brain and your gastrointestinal system. This connection, referred to as the gut-brain axis, often means that stress can trigger gastrointestinal issues or worsen existing ones.
The gut houses millions of neurons that are in constant communication with the brain but are independent in their own functions. Along with these neurons, the gut is home to a diverse and complex population of bacteria that contribute to a wide range of functions, such as breaking down food, absorbing nutrients, and producing certain vitamins. The vast network of neurons and the significance of the gut microbiome can both be affected by stress and stress hormones.
All of this translates to occasional gastrointestinal issues. Studies have found that constant stress, along with mood and adverse life events, may worsen concerns.
Stress is believed to alter gut motility, resulting in either diarrhea or occasional constipation. Stress may also weaken intestinal barriers, which can result in food particles and bacteria freely entering the bloodstream and triggering an immune response, leading to gastrointestinal concerns. You may also be more susceptible to occasional gas, bloating, and general bowel discomfort.
Coping with Stress
Learning to avoid or cope with stress in constructive, healthy ways may help to strengthen your gut and support your overall health. Here are some tips that may help you manage your stress:
Physical activity gives you an outlet to release the physical stress and tension in your body. Exercise also gives your mind something to focus on aside from your mental stressors; it results in the release of dopamine and other feel-good chemicals to ease your body and mind.
For most people, stress increases appetite, particularly cravings for sweets and other junk foods. Instead of carb-heavy processed foods, try reaching for foods that are good for the gut. This includes probiotics, fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, and whole foods. Bovine colostrum and other supplements may also help to strengthen gut health.
Meditation and breathing exercises are known to reduce stress, regulate blood pressure, and support more mindful thinking. Consider taking yoga, which combines meditation with moderate exercise.
Stress has become something of a modern issue for everyone, so it’s important to find healthy ways of managing stress on your own, whether that’s building a support system, making lifestyle changes, or seeking professional help.