The Gut and Stress

By Brendon Lye

We’re all aware that stress isn’t good for us, but did you know that stress levels wreak havoc on our gut? When we think of stress, we think of pressure at work, not having enough time to do all the things we need to get done in a day and having too many commitments with family, friends or work to juggle. But did you know that too much exercise, not getting enough sleep and not feeling moments of joy and pleasure in our daily life can also cause stress that affects our gut?

Stress produces too much cortisol in our bodies, which is linked to the “flight or fight” response. Cortisol activates the sympathetic nervous system. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, the parasympathetic nervous system must be suppressed, since they cannot operate simultaneously.

Usually when we’re eating, the parasympathetic nervous system is at play. This is important because for the body to best use food energy, enzymes and hormones controlling digestion and absorption must be working. When you have a stressed out and cortisol-flooded body, digestion and absorption are compromised, indigestion develops and the mucosal lining becomes irritated and inflamed. Mucosal inflammation can lead to the increased production of cortisol becoming a vicious cycle.

Chronic stress results in alterations in your gut-brain connection, which can cause or worsen gastrointestinal symptoms and disorders like heartburn, reflux disease, irritable bowel syndrome and even food allergies. What’s more, various studies have found that bacteria in our gut can also affect our mental health. It is easy to see how this can become a kind of chain reaction. Stress causes poor gut health, and poor gut health causes poor mental health with conditions like anxiety and depression.

The first step is to be mindful of how big of a role stress is playing in our lives and start noticing when it affects us and what triggers it. The next step is to look at ways of minimising the stress in your life. If you’re always stressed about being late to work, perhaps you could start getting ready a little earlier or prepare what you need the night before. It seems obvious, but these simple steps can make a very big impact in reducing our stress levels and therefore, our overall health.


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