How Stress Impacts your Gut Health


We are all aware that stress is something we should be looking to limit in our lives, but for many people it is very difficult to manage. Most people are living very busy lives, working long hours, trying to fit in as many things as possible into their day. But relaxation and quiet time don’t tend to be a high priority. The worrying thing is that many parents are unwittingly teaching their children this type of lifestyle.  We are seeing more and more children suffering with anxiety and stress related health problems.

Why is this all worrying? It is worrying because stress has a big impact on our overall health.

Research has linked high levels of stress with autoimmune disease, heart disease, ulcers, diabetes, hormone imbalances, and countless other chronic health conditions.  Chronic stress can also damage your gut, which, as you know by now is the gateway to health, opening the door for a whole host of issues. A damaged gut can also have an impact on your brain. The brain and the gut share a two –way connection so not only does a healthy gut affect your mental state, but your mental state affects how your gut functions.

How does your Body Respond to Stress?

The term ‘stress’ is broadly defined as a reaction to a stimulus or threat that is either real or perceived. Stress is useful in small doses. It stimulates reactions to avoid danger, motivates us to work towards a goal or strive for success. However, when stress becomes chronic and persistent, our physical and mental well-being suffers.

When you experience any kind of stress whether it is physical, emotional – (break up of relationship), or mental (overwhelmed and overloaded at work), your body processes it the same way through the adrenal glands.  The adrenal glands respond by creating a big flood of stress hormones including Cortisol. These affect both your digestive system and your immune system. (70% of your immune system is located in your gut).

A stress response evolved as a means of self- preservation from our early ancestors facing immediate life threatening situations, like possible attack from wild animals.  This is the fight or flight response.  The problem today is that stress is no longer a short term situation that dies down after the event.  It has become like the accelerator pedal in a car being stuck.  It is chronic and ongoing all the time.

Why is Chronic Stress a Problem?

Firstly, the cortisol produced by your adrenal glands revs up your immune system and is highly inflammatory. This is fine if you have an open wound, for example, as inflammation is needed to fight any infection. But if you are chronically stressed, because you are working long hours it can be very harmful.

Sustaining a high level of inflammation in the body is dangerous, because if it continues over time it can trigger auto immune disease.  When you experience a short period of inflammatory response that temporarily boosts your immune system and gives you energy to run from the tiger or deal with a virus that is fine. The problem is today that we are experiencing more long term and chronic stress. The need to be always constantly available via technology, working long hours and over committing ourselves is a serious problem. We are just not giving our bodies a chance to rest and recover. This means that your body continuously goes through cycles of high inflammation, which then can damage the gut lining, and impacts your immune system. This then results in your gut being vulnerable to pathogens that you could be ingesting.

When your stress response is activated your digestive system shuts down. If you need to run from a tiger you need lots of blood flowing to your legs, so that you can get away from the danger quickly. Your brain also needs lots of blood flowing to it to help with problem solving.  At that moment you don’t need to be digesting your breakfast. There are more important needs for survival.

What is the impact on your health?

When your digestive system is suppressed or shut down, your immune system is also suppressed and it is in this situation when harmful bacteria have the opportunity to multiply unchecked. This can result in imbalances in your gut flora and create issues like Candida overgrowth, which in turn creates a lot of health issues itself.  Also, Cortisol is a form of sugar so this is feeding the bad bacteria in your gut and helping to multiply.

When we are exposed to chronic stress the lining of the intestine becomes damaged and porous. This allows large, undigested food molecules, toxins and waste to flow freely into your bloodstream through the porous-like holes in the gut’s lining. The process of increased permeability is often referred to as ‘leaky gut’. This also causes an immune response from our body, because these things should not be in our blood. So it goes on red alert.

How does it affect your Immune System?

Around 70% of your immune system lies in your gut, so it has a big impact on the way it functions.

Our gut is exposed to not only the food we eat, but foreign pathogens like bacteria, food proteins, parasites, fungi, toxins and viruses which we inadvertently consume. Should any of these nasties make their way through the gut barrier, our immune system is triggered and attacks any foreign substance it does not recognize. An inundated immune system causes an exaggerated and prolonged immune response. This can lead to a whole host of problems such as the development of food sensitivities, systemic inflammatory disorders, irritable bowel syndrome and autoimmune disease.

What is the impact on your mood?

When your gut microbiome becomes out of balance due to a shortage of good bacteria, and has an excess of yeast or bad bacteria it can result in you experiencing more stress. 95% of the Serotonin is produced in the gut and this

production is slowed when your gut microbiome is out of balance. Serotonin is the feel good neurotransmitter that regulates your mood, wellbeing and sleep.

Top Tips for Reducing Stress in your Life

  1. Practice mindfulness
  2. Make meditation part of your daily routine
  3. Take regular exercise, but choose something that you enjoy. That way you are more likely to do it. It doesn’t matter whether it is going to a gym, swimming, dancing, walking, running, Zumba, or pilates just do something that is exercise.
  4. Get out into nature on a regular basis.
  5. Have a relaxing hot bath
  6. Have regular massages
  7. Practice yoga or Tai chi or similar activities
  8. Make time for a hobby that you love.
  9. Take time to do deep breathing exercises through the day
  10. See problems and difficulties in your life as challenges and opportunities to learn from, deal with them and then let go.
  11. Don’t put the keys to your happiness in someone else’s pocket. You have to live your life on your terms, not someone else’s.
  12. Become aware of those negative thoughts in your head and turn them into positives.
  13. Don’t be afraid to ask people for help. It is not a sign of weakness, it is quite the opposite and just as you like helping others, because it makes you feel good, so others like to help you.

There are many ways to relax and de-stress.   So choose those things that work for you, but doing NOTHING is not an option.

Reducing the level of stress in your life is very important for your health. Life is meant to be full of enjoyment and fun.

So slow down, chill and relax. Your body will thank you for it.

Check out the  10 Key signs of Poor Gut health.

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