Guest post written by: Kelsey Marksteiner MS, RD, CDN
Think back to the last time you were really stressed. Maybe you were about to give a big speech, or you were sitting down to an important interview. Do you remember the “butterflies” you felt? Perhaps you even felt more than butterflies in the moment when (because life is just unfair) your bowels decided they needed to go now. (Perfect timing, bowels, thanks for that). Maybe you’ve experienced heartburn during a stressful period in your life – fighting with a spouse, or writing your thesis. Perhaps you’ve made a decision based on a “gut feeling” or “gut instinct”; you just “know in your gut” that it’s the right choice. These common experiences are no coincidence – they’re evidence of the special relationship that exists between our brain and our gut.
This relationship – called the gut-brain axis – plays an essential role in our well-being. It’s a two-way street, too: not only do we experience symptoms like altered bowel movements with a change in our mental state, but a change in the gut can affect a change in the brain, as well. These bidirectional signals can either keep us healthy or cause us a great deal of discomfort.
So how does stress affect our gut and what can we do about it? Read on, my friend…
Acute versus Chronic Stress
The stress we experience today is very different from what our ancestors dealt with. While they were perhaps chased by a bear while out hunting (an acute stressor) on occasion, we deal with chronic stress. We wake up to an alarm, then we’re in a rush to get to work, we get stuck in traffic, get yelled at by our boss, work on difficult projects all day long, get stuck in traffic again on the way home, fight with our spouse about something when we get home, stay up too late and don’t get enough sleep before we wake up and start all over again. Yikes. While acute stress has its negative impact on the gut as well, chronic stress is far worse.
Chronic Stress Unbalances Gut Flora
Did you know you have over 100 trillion bacteria living in your gut? (1) Yes, 100 trillion. Their composition – that is, the types and the amount of each type – play a role in our digestive (and overall) health. Dysbiosis is an imbalance (usually too much bad and not enough good bacteria) that can occur in any of our mucus membranes, such as in the lungs, mouth, nose, and of course, the gut. (2) Gut dysbiosis is surprisingly common: it’s often seen in those with inflammatory bowel disease, fatty liver, obesity, colon cancer, IBS, and more. (3, 4, 5, 6, 7) Healthy gut bacteria is vital for our digestive and overall health. However, chronic stress changes the composition of the bacteria in our gut, shifting it in a less favorable manner.
Studies on mice show that chronic mild stress (much like we experience on a daily basis) disrupts the balance of the microbiota, increasing counts of potentially pathogenic bacteria and reducing counts of beneficial bugs. (8) Not only does stress alter the balance of bacteria, but it also reduces the gut’s microbial diversity (how many different types of bacteria we have). (9) Reducing your stress level leads to a better balanced gut.
Chronic Stress Causes Leaky Gut
Your gut lining plays a crucial role in allowing the passing of the essentials after digestion (i.e. nutrients) while keeping anything we don’t need outside the body. Think about your digestive tract for a second; from mouth to anus it’s not technically “in” our body, it’s outside. If you think of the body as a donut, the GI tract is the donut hole, outside the rest of the donut. Pretty incredible that our entire digestive system is technically not even “inside” us, right? When you think about it like that, you can imagine that the GI tract is inundated with substances from the outside world. The gut barrier acts as a sieve, allowing only the particles it deems appropriate into the body. When the sieve breaks, things that aren’t supposed to get across now flow freely. When the gut barrier leaks, we’ve got a big problem.
It’s been known for a long time that severe physical stress like trauma or surgery causes the intestinal lining to become “leaky”, but more recent research has started to look at the effect of chronic psychological stress on the gut barrier. (10) Rats under chronic stress develop intestinal permeability that then takes several days of no stress to heal. Research also shows that treatment with probiotics also prevents this permeability from happening in the first place. (11) The most recent research points the finger of blame to the mast cells in the gut. You may have heard of mast cells in their relation to allergies as they’re the cells that release histamine, a chemical that causes the typical allergic symptoms – runny nose, watery eyes, congestion, etc. But they’re also found in the gut and seem to be why stress causes intestinal permeability. When researchers use rats that are bred not to have mast cells, the rats don’t exhibit leaky gut like their mast-cell containing counterparts. (12, 13) Reducing your stress is crucial to stabilizing those mast cells and making sure your gut barrier stays strong!
How to Take Charge of Your Stress and Fix Your Gut
Stress is often the last thing everyone wants to deal with, but I want to encourage you to take charge of it. While you may think “stress is just a part of life” (which it is, to a certain extent), there’s a lot you can do about it. Here are some tips to get you started:
- Acknowledge your stress level. Many people live in denial about their stress level, and as a result do nothing about it. Take this opportunity to take a good look at your stressors.
- Commit to a stress-relief practice. Meditation, yoga, deep breathing, tai chi – it’s all good! Pick something you enjoy and make it a habit. Daily is best if you can do it! If you’re new to all of this, I highly recommend checking out the meditation app HeadSpace.
- Create a mantra. This is something I encourage my clients with gut problems to do, mostly because many of them have a lot of anxiety around eating because they’re worried they’ll react to a lot of the foods they eat. They might come up with something like “My body will be accepting of this food” – it might sound a little woo-woo, but combined with a minute of deep breathing before meal time, it’s often a life-saver for those with severe gut problems!
Now I want to hear from you. Do you have any tips and tricks to reduce your stress level and heal your gut? Share them in the comments!
This is a guest post written by Kelsey Marksteiner MS, RD, CDN. Kelsey is a Registered Dietitian with a Bachelors degree in Nutrition from NYU and a Master’s in Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine. She works in private practice and recommends individualized dietary therapy focusing on biologically appropriate diet principles to aid her clients in losing weight, gaining energy, and pursuing continued health. Through her work, she aims to meld the dietary wisdom of traditional cultures with the latest science in integrative and functional medicine to create plans for her clients that work in the modern world. You can learn more about Kelsey by visiting her website or join her newsletter here! You can sign up for an appointment with Kelsey here.