By Carla Oates
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. This gut-brain axis can be thought of as your internal communication superhighway, delivering information from your brain to your gut and vice versa.
While you’re likely already familiar with the mental health and wellbeing impacts stress can have—you may be unaware of how psychological stress can influence, disrupt and disturb your gut, too.
So, if you’re feeling stressed, fatigued or overwhelmed with the day to day—which during lockdown is completely normal and understandable—here’s everything you need to know about how stress impacts your gut and what you can do to manage it, regain your energy and feel healthy, well and vital once again.
The Stress-Gut Connection
Firstly, it’s important to understand how stress actually works—and what it does to the body on a physiological level. Put simply, 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 “gut-brain axis”.
It makes sense, therefore, that 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, slower digestion and contribute to feelings of fatigue and sluggishness. Critically, stress can also throw the delicate balance of bacteria in our gut out of whack.
The result of this 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, energy levels and cognition. And don’t forget, around 70 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.
Here are a few of our top lifestyle tweaks to help manage stress and fatigue—and boost your belly, too…
1. Balance Your Diet & Make Mealtimes More Mindful
The best way to keep your microbiome in balance—and subsequently combat stress and reduce feelings of fatigue (both physical and mental)—is to focus on a nutrient-dense, wholefoods diet. This includes noshing on an abundance of antioxidant-rich fruit and fibre-rich vegetables—which act as prebiotics, helping to fuel the beneficial bacteria in your gut and encourage their proliferation—as well as plenty of probiotic-rich fermented foods to give your belly a healthy dose of good bacteria. 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.
Stress can also lead to indigestion and compromise gut motility so if you’re feeling under pressure, it’s important to pay more attention to how you eat—not just what you eat. Taking some time to enjoy your meal away from your computer screen, phone and television will help you to focus better on your food—but also try to 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 kickstart the digestive process, subsequently increasing nutrient absorption and availability. The better we absorb the nutrients from our foods, the more vibrant and vital we’ll feel.
2. Prioritise Sleep
Sleep is life. Literally. And when it comes to combating both stress and fatigue—sleep plays an essential role as we simply can’t function optimally without it. In terms of our digestive system, sleep helps our bodies to produce important hormones such as melatonin, which regulate our circadian rhythm (sleep and wake cycles) and also protect our 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 and ensure your gut wall remains robust. 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 Support 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
There is a growing mountain of evidence to show how 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 and calm our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS)—which in turn helps to alleviate headaches, inflammation and even depression. But it’s not just the physical symptoms of stress that nature can assist with. Nature can actually reduce feelings of fatigue, too. One study found that even just looking at pictures of nature can alleviate mental fatigue which illustrates just how powerful a little fresh air can be on our overall health and wellbeing.
4. Stay Active
We are all well-versed in the health benefits of exercise but it’s important to reiterate. Exercise produces feel-good neurochemicals known as endorphins, which effectively act as natural painkillers, improving sleep quality, reducing stress and fatigue 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, consequently enriching microflora diversity.
5. Practise Gratitude
Research has shown that showing gratitude can change our brain and release feel-good neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin—meaning that when we practise gratitude, our brain actually rewards us and makes us feel good. Gratitude is also strongly correlated with increased energy, focus and motivation—as well as reduced stress, anxiety and depression, and better sleep. When we experience positive emotions due to gratitude, our gut also benefits, too—resulting in improved digestion and a more balanced microbiome.
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. Meditation has also been linked to reduced fatigue and improved vitality—with meditators reporting less fatigue, depression and improved sleep.