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Research backed ways to reduce the impact of stress on the gut

By PYM STORE

5 Research-Backed Ways to Reduce the Effects of Stress on Your Gut

Stress is a part of life. And in fact, some stress is good!

However, we now know through countless research studies that chronic stress has a negative impact on our gut health. And poor gut health, can lead to more stress and other mood disorders like anxiety and depression. It's a vicious negative feedback loop, thanks to what's known as the gut-brain axis.

Since most of us can't go live in a bubble and never experience any stress, we need to know strategies to reduce the effects of stress on our gut.

This article will explore how stress impacts gut health, the relationship between gut health and mental health, and research-backed strategies to reduce the negative impact of stress on our gut.

Good stress vs. bad stress

Our body is designed to release stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline when there is a threat, so that we can fight, flight or freeze to survive. This is a good thing!

This threat may be external (like a bear chasing you or a car coming at you) or internal (like inflammatory foods or toxins, or even negative thoughts that create feelings of anxiety). 

Once the threat has passed and we feel safe, our nervous system goes back into a regulated state.

However, thanks to traffic, social media, stressful jobs, global pandemics, economic crises, poor diet, toxins and more, our bodies are met with constant stress, and it's more difficult to get back into that regulated state.

This chronic stress impacts the gut, leading to not only gastrointestinal symptoms like bloating and brain fog, but also symptoms of anxiety and depression.

How Stress Impacts Gut Health & Mental Health

Your digestive tract comprises 100 million neurons, the network of nerve cells referred to as the enteric nervous system. It‚Äôs so extensive that some scientists call the enteric nervous system our ‚Äúsecond brain.‚Ä̬† ¬†

The vagus nerve (a thick cable of neurons running between the base of the brain and our gut) allows the brain and the gut to communicate with each other, with information flowing bi-directionally. This is also known as the gut-brain axis.  

About 80 to 90 percent of the neurons in the vagus nerve are actually sending messages from the gut to the brain, with 10 to 20 percent sending commands from the brain to control muscles that move food through the gut. This means the signals generated in the gut can massively influence the brain.

This can explain why that individuals with digestive issues are prone to anxiety, while those with anxiety are more susceptible to gastrointestinal diseases.

As previously mentioned, in response to a stressful situation, the body releases stress hormones like cortisol. Chronically high levels of cortisol can create issues for your gut health, such as:

Slower digestion

When cortisol is increased, blood is diverted away from your intestines towards your limbs, so that you can run or fight. This slows down digestion because digestion is not deemed necessary for survival in this moment.

This may lead to sudden "evacuation" (diarrhea), bloating, or constipation.

Diarrhea can lead to malnutrition because the nutrients are being expelled from your body before your body can absorb and utilize them. 

Constipation can lead to inflammation because toxins are being absorbed back into your blood stream.

Malnutrition and inflammation can lead to mental health issues like anxiety and depression.

Decreased stomach acidity

Increased cortisol production also decreases acidity in the stomach, making it harder for your stomach to break down food and absorb nutrients. 

We require many vitamins and minerals for a balanced mood and neurotransmitter health, such as B vitamins, magnesium, and omega-3's. If your body can't absorb and utilize these nutrients from your food, you will likely experience symptoms of anxiety or depression.

Leaky gut

Adding to this, chronic stress is associated with increased intestinal permeability ("leaky gut"), which means food particles and toxins can enter your blood stream, causing chronic low-grade inflammation throughout the body. 

Decreased microbiome diversity

Worse still, stress tends to drive us to crave "comfort foods" like highly processed foods with a lot of added sugar and fat. 

Frequently eating these kinds of foods decreases the diversity of the bacteria in our gut, which has been associated with mood disorders and other chronic illnesses.

5 Ways to Reduce the Effects of Stress on the Gut

While we can't always control the amount of stress in our lives, there are things we can do to counteract the impacts of it on our gut health, and therefore improve our mental health.

1. Breathing

While breathing is something we do unconsciously all day every day, most of us were never taught how to breath properly in a way that helps reduce stress. 

Certain techniques for breathing can bring our nervous system into the parasympathetic state or "rest and digest", which is the opposite of "fight or flight". 

Even just one minute of slow, deep breathing, in through the nose and out through the mouth every couple hours throughout the day can help reduce stress and anxiety.

Doing this before eating a meal can be especially helpful for digestion.

2. Reduce caffeine and alcohol intake

Caffeine actually gives us energy by increasing cortisol levels. So, if you are finding yourself particularly stressed or anxious, it can be a good idea to wean yourself off of caffeine or significantly reduce your intake. Try opting for a black or green tea, or matcha instead.

Alcohol affects the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which play a role in regulating mood and anxiety. Initially, alcohol may increase the release of these neurotransmitters, leading to temporary feelings of relaxation. However, as alcohol is metabolized and its effects wear off, it can result in a rebound effect, causing a decrease in neurotransmitter levels. This can lead to increased feelings of anxiety, irritability, and even depression.

3. Supplement to support the Gut-Brain Axis

An easy, quick way to support your gut health and brain health daily is to supplement with psychobiotics and omega-3's.

Psychobiotics are prebiotics and probiotics that have been scientifically proven to improve mood health by helping the gut boost production of serotonin, and absorb nutrients required for neurotransmitter health.

Omega-3's EPA and DHA are involved in the regulation of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which are important for mood regulation. By promoting healthy neurotransmitter function, omega-3s may help alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression.

In addition, omega-3s have anti-inflammatory properties and can help reduce systemic inflammation in the body. By modulating inflammation, omega-3s may help alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression that can be associated with chronic inflammation.

Our Gut-Brain Connect bundle, formulated by neuroscientists to boost gut health and brain health, includes:

  • Mood Biotics:¬†6 strains of research-backed prebiotics and probiotics proven to boost gut health & serotonin production, reduce stress and improve mood
  • Mood Omegas:¬†Omega-3 essential fatty acids DHA and EPA to support brain fog and cognition

4. Low-Impact Exercise

Many people often view exercise as a stress reliever, and it is! But too much of a good thing can turn into a bad thing.

Intense or high-impact exercises, such as vigorous running or heavy weightlifting, can increase cortisol levels. So when you're trying to heal from chronic stress, intense exercise may not be the best thing.

In contrast, low-impact exercises, such as walking, swimming, or yoga, can help regulate cortisol levels and promote a healthier stress response. This can aid in restoring balance to your body's stress hormones.

5. Spend time in nature

Nature has a restorative effect on the body's stress response. Research suggests that exposure to natural environments can reduce stress hormones such as cortisol and lower blood pressure and heart rate. Being in nature promotes a shift towards the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for relaxation and restoration, leading to a state of calmness.

Additionally, the calming sounds of birds chirping, leaves rustling, or water flowing can have a soothing effect on the mind and body.

Summary

Gut health impacts mental health and vise-versa, via the gut-brain axis. Stress impacts gut health by slowing down digestion, creating nutrient deficiencies, and increasing inflammation. 

You can reduce the impacts of stress on the gut by incorporating daily breathing exercises, reducing caffeine and alcohol intake, supplementing with psychobiotics and omega-3's, doing low-impact exercise and spending time in nature.