How Stress Impacts Your Gut - and What You Can Do About It
Have you ever wondered “is stress related to stomach problems?” You’re not alone.
For centuries, we thought the root of anxiety was solely in our brains. But researchers have found that we have a second nervous system, in our gut - referred to as the “second brain” - that communicates with our actual brain, impacting our mood and anxiety.
How Stress Impacts Your Gut
A clear link between our gut and our mood.
Your body is made up of trillions of microorganisms, including bacteria, that help build your immune system and keep you healthy. Most of these organisms live in your intestines. You actually have more bacterial cells in your body than human cells!
These bacteria – which make up your microbiome - play a huge role in not just your health, but your mental health in particular. Your gut microbiome influences inflammation, not just in the body but also in the brain, which has been linked to depression and anxiety. It also activates enteroendocrine cells in your gut lining, which produce critical hormones in your body and mood-regulating chemicals like serotonin.
So how does your body actually send signals between gut and brain?
The foundation of gut-brain communication is actually a familiar one. When you have a headache and swallow a pill, it enters your gut to be broken down. Chemicals from the pill then travel from your gut to your brain to provide relief.
This “gut-brain axis” is a two way street. This means that not only does your gut send signals that communicate with your brain, but your brain sends signals to your gut. Microorganisms then travel up this communication highway and deliver messages, which is why probiotics (healthy bacteria) are effective in helping to improve gut and mental health.
Your mood and stress impacts your gut.
Let’s illustrate an example to understand how your gut and digestive systems are tied to your stress response. First, here are the basics:
When your body perceives stress (like a hungry wolf), it activates your sympathetic nervous system, or your fight or flight response, and your body increases cortisol production, along with other neurotransmitters and hormones. Your body enters survival mode, and it shuts down digestion – because having to use the bathroom is the last thing you need when running from a wolf.
In the modern world, we’re (hopefully) not fleeing wolves – but your body works the same way regardless of stressor. This can slow digestion and cause stomach woes like diarhea or the stomach butterflies many of us associate with anxiety. Increased cortisol production can also change the level of acid in your stomach, altering your microbiome. This means the good gut bacteria you need to feel your best can’t flourish. In other words, stress not only causes stomach issues, but it creates a vicious cycle altering your gut in ways that prevent optimal mental wellness.
The Gut-Brain Anxiety Cycle: Stress/anxiety impact your gut health, which impacts your mood and stress levels, which impact your gut health…talk about a vicious cycle!
Tips for less stress and a healthier gut
1. Diet, and supplements. Your can keep your gut happy by supplying it with healthy bacteria – found in yogurt, fermented foods like kimchi and pickles, and probiotic supplements. It’s also important to nourish your gut bacteria with the prebiotic fiber they thrive on – found in veggies like broccoli, fruit like berries and bananas, and legumes like beans. It’s also a good idea to pay attention to your mood and how you feel after you eat certain foods – processed foods and refined sugars are known culprits. (Pro tip: keep a food journal for 1 week and document how you feel 30 minutes after, 1 hour after, and the morning after each food choice.)
2. Deep breathing techniques – Deep breathing, like diaphragmatic breathing (link) or four square breathing, activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which controls your ability to relax and puts you and your gut into rest and digest mode, which signals to your brain that everything is ok, enabling relaxation. (Pro tip: check out our easy guide to four square “box breathing.”)
3. Hydrate. Dehydration wreaks havoc on your body and brain, and drinking enough water can create feelings of calm and relaxation. It’s also critical for your digestive health, preventing constipation and making sure everything moves smoothly. The ideal water intake is more than you think, and can be calculated by drinking half of your body weight (body weight x .5= ideal water intake) in ounces. (Pro tip: Don’t love plain water? Try squeezing some lemon or throwing some diced strawberries in your glass for a burst of flavor and bonus vitamins.)
4. Talk to a professional. Look for integrative nutritionists and therapists who specialize in holistic treatment modalities, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), hypnosis, biofeedback or mindfulness. Integrative nutritionists can help you come up with a personalized approach to make sure your diet + lifestyle choices are optimized for your mental wellbeing. (Pro tip: Schedule your free consult with a nutritional psychology expert by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org)
Written by Vanessa Gottlieb Laudette; Fact-checked by Camila Smith, LCSW.