When we think about stress, we usually think of it as something that only happens in our heads. But truth be told, when we feel stressed, the bacteria in our gut feel it too.
In fact, your gut is engaged in a constant dialogue with your brain via the vagus nerve. Think of it as your internal information highway, delivering information from your brain to your gut and vice versa.
How stress works...
Stress activates two main pathways in the body; the pituitary-adrenal axis, which increases production of stress-regulating hormones, and the autonomic nervous system, responsible for regulating involuntary bodily functions such as blood pressure, heart rate and bowel function. Critically, both pathways can affect gut function via the 100 million nerve endings that lie within the bowel wall. This is known as the enteric nervous system and along with the brain, is collectively referred to as the “brain-gut axis”.
Stress and gut health
When it comes to gut health, what we choose to nourish our bodies with is only one piece of the puzzle. Stress has been closely linked to a number of gastrointestinal disorders including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Numerous studies have also shown a relationship between irritable bellies and irritable brains. Stress can also increase gut permeability, leading to Leaky Gut, slow digestion and throw the delicate balance of bacteria in the gut out of balance.
This dysbiosis can leave you feeling fatigued, foggy, anxious or even depressed. But interestingly, this connection works both ways. Research has shown that a well-balanced gut microbiota can have a positive effect on your moods, memory and cognition. And don’t forget, around 80 per cent of your immune system sits within your gut so maintaining a healthy balance of bacteria is super important for a healthy endocrine and immune system too.
One way to help keep your microbiome in balance is by including nutrient-dense wholefoods in your diet and ensuring you’re incorporating both pre and probiotics daily. While the therapeutic role of diet and probiotics in managing stress and gut disorders is ongoing, research has already shown that probiotics can help to prevent the development of stress-induced disorders in the upper and lower gastrointestinal tract.
But aside from diet, there are a few other lifestyle tweaks you can implement to better manage stress...
1. Make mealtimes more mindful
Did you know stress can lead to indigestion? It’s important, therefore, to pay even more attention to eating mindfully if you’re feeling under pressure. Taking the time to enjoy your meal away from your computer screen, phone and television will help you to focus better on your food. Also avoid eating with people who are stressed out themselves. Savour the taste, smell and texture of your food in order to stimulate the production of saliva which contains digestive enzymes that help to kick-start the digestion process, increasing nutrient absorption and availability.
2. Prioritise sleep
Getting enough sleep is essential, both in terms of reducing stress and enhancing digestion. When you sleep your body produces important hormones including melatonin, which regulates your circadian rhythm (sleep and wake cycles) as well as protecting your cells against free radical damage. Interestingly, melatonin also has a protective effect against stress-induced lesions in the gastrointestinal tract so prioritising shut-eye is one simple way to manage stress. Practising an electronic sundown by switching off all screens at least an hour before bed, banning devices from your bedroom and enjoying a warm bedtime drink can all help you wind down in the evenings. The Beauty Chef’s SLEEP Inner Beauty Powder is a delicious, multi-tasking probiotic formula that helps combat sleeplessness, relieves anxiety, boosts antioxidant activity for skin repair and nourishes your gut while you sleep.
3. Get into nature
Studies have shown that spending time in nature can be a major health booster. Forest bathing – or Shinrin-yoku, as the Japanese call it – lowers salivary levels of stress hormone, cortisol. It also reduces blood pressure, heart rate, blood glucose and muscle tension. Nature can also upregulate our brain cognition, empathy and creativity as well as calming our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), helping to alleviate headaches, inflammation and depression.
4. Stay active
Exercise produces feel-good neurochemicals known as endorphins, which effectively act as natural painkillers, improving sleep quality, reducing stress and stabilising your mood. A little goes a long way too and even five minutes of movement can have an anti-anxiety effect. When it comes to gut health, exercise also plays a key role in enhancing the number of beneficial microbial species and enriching microflora diversity.
5. Practise gratitude
Research has shown that keeping a daily gratitude journal can alter the neural pathways in the brain, increasing energy, focus and motivation. While more exploration needs to be done, studies suggest that people who are more grateful experience less stress, anxiety and depression, sleep better and have better relationship with others. Those who are more grateful also suffer from fewer aches and pains, enjoy better heart health and experience a slower rate of cellular ageing.
6. Master meditation
It’s no secret that meditation is good for our overall wellbeing, but researchers from Harvard have discovered that stress management techniques such as meditation can actually be beneficial for those suffering from gastrointestinal disorders, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) too. The study revealed that elicitation of the relaxation response (a physiological state of deep rest that helps to manage our physical and emotional response to stress) helps to improve symptoms and keep stress and anxiety at bay.
What are some of the lifestyle tweaks you could implement today?