How Stress Can Mess With Your Gut & 4 Things You Can Do About It

Written by Ali Miller, R.D., L.D., C.D.E.
Ali Miller R.D., L.D., C.D.E. is an integrative functional medicine practitioner with a background in naturopathic medicine, currently residing in Houston, Texas. She studied Nutritional Science at the University of Iowa, then went on to receive her Bachelor's in Nutritional Sciences from Bastyr University. She is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, Certified Diabetes Educator, and author.

Image by Sergey Filimonov / Stocksy

In times of stress, many people experience muscle tension, racing thoughts, tightness in the chest, and some may experience digestive shifts. Think butterflies in your belly or nerves hitting your gut. 

The fact is, the brain and the gut communicate directly. Emotions and cognitive function affect the intestine function and vice versa. Thus, stress can wreak havoc on your gut, and your gut health can affect stress levels.

Which came first, the stress or the gut issues? 

The connection between stress and the gut runs deep. It can become a vicious cycle in which distress or anxiety can trigger the immune system to send out signals to break down the gut lining. An imbalanced or damaged gut may drive a chronic stress response. Then the stress itself stimulates the fight-or-flight response, which perpetuates more gut damage. Yikes.

This chicken-or-egg cycle can be compounded if you already have leaky gut issues. When the gut barrier is compromised, it allows large compounds into the bloodstream (hence: leaky), creating an overactive inflammatory response. 

When your body is in a low-grade state of inflammation from leaky gut, it is essentially perceiving a constant threat. Your neurological system stays on edge with a survival response of adrenaline, which can be experienced as a state of distress or unease in the individual.

But even if you don't already have leaky gut, mental stress can actually trigger it. 

How stress drives leaky gut.

To understand the stress-gut relationship, let's look at two important lab values: secretory IgA and lipopolysaccharide (LPS).

When these markers are elevated, it typically means the presence of an infection or a state of gut dysbiosis. They activate the immune system, and in the case of LPS, increase gut permeability in an attempt to "deal" with this imbalance that the gut itself can't rid.

However, they can also be elevated by a state of mental and emotional stress. Studies have demonstrated social anxiety alone can cause elevations in both secretory IgA and LPS, which means chronic stress causes gut permeability (leaky gut!) and mucosal membrane damage over time.

What's more, when the body is in a stressed state, it tends to burn through the amino acid glutamine at a more rapid rate. This may be due to the fact that glutamine is used to produce GABA, a mellowing neurotransmitter that is inhibitory to stress. Which is great for tampering stress, but glutamine is also a fuel source and a building block for gut cells, which means the depletion of glutamine to fight stress further drives gut damage. Whomp whomp.

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What about the microbiome?

So now that you understand the gut-brain connection, let's layer in the microbiome a bit more. When I was at a naturopathic college, I was told probiotics are nature's Prozac. This is because the gut can produce over 90% of the body's serotonin, as well as GABA, dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine, and acetylcholine.

Based on the balance of gut bacteria, the gut will either produce more inhibitory "mellow" neurotransmitters or more excitatory "stress" neurotransmitters. Dysbiosis, or bacterial imbalance, can signal the gut to fire off more adrenaline, driving chronic stress. 

Research has also demonstrated that mental stress can drive sterility in the microbiome. This may lead to more opportunities for pathogens, like yeast, to overgrow, further driving gut imbalances and stress responses.

How to heal your stress-induced gut issues.

So how do we get to the root? When looking at ways to address the gut-stress connection, it is important to proactively reduce inflammation in the diet, support gut health and repair leaky gut, provide rich sources of gut supporting nutrients, and work to support microbiome balance.

1. Remove inflammatory foods.

Begin with an anti-inflammatory diet that removes the primary irritants: corn, soy, gluten, dairy, and sugar. If you are still dealing with symptoms of digestive stress or inflammatory response, consider an elimination diet or advanced blood testing.

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2. Rest your gut.

When you are in a state of stress, your body functions in the fight-or-flight response rather than rest-and-digest. Beyond the influences already covered, this can mean fewer digestive enzymes are produced, leaving the gut prone to large particle impact as well as gut permeability. 

If you have a big life change or high stress event, consider resting your gut and doing a day of bone broth with optional cooked protein added. Also, supplementing with digestive enzymes should be a priority during times of stress.

3. Incorporate more therapeutic foods.

Focus on healing your gut lining by adding therapeutic foods to support absorption of nutrients and reduce inflammatory reactions.

  • Bone broth: Sip on your broth in a mug, or use it as a cooking liquid, the base of a soup, or even an elixir; I love to blend bone broth with fresh lime, dried turmeric, salt, and cilantro.
  • Gelatin: This is a great summer option when bone broth becomes less appealing. Kids love it as gummies or in fruited flavors. I also add gelatin to many puddings or panna cotta desserts and use it as a thickener in stir-fries and sauces.
  • Collagen: Perhaps the most versatile of these options, collagen has the least flavor and least influence on texture. Collagen can be used in hot or cold beverages and can be added to any liquid with a quick stir. It is so easy to use, I often travel with single packs on the go to boost an unsweetened iced green tea or cold brew.
  • Fermented foods: Probiotic-rich food can support microbiome health and optimize neurotransmitter production; cultured vegetables, kombucha, kimchi, and sauerkraut are all great choices
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4. Try a mantra.

Work with mantra and mind state. Focus on being present and releasing what "is not" what "should be" or what "might be." Even beginning with, "I am safe" or "I am" while practicing breath can send a signal to the vagus nerve to support gut health and microbiome balance.

Many of us are overwhelmed or overextended with our day-to-day life, and this chronic stress may be interfering with our gut health, our microbiome, and ultimately our mood. Taking the steps to interrupt these vicious cycles with food as medicine will support your digestive function while reducing inflammation and balancing neurotransmitter output. Next time you realize you are stressed, pause and consider that maybe you can "handle" it but your body may be affected. Find ways to cut down on commitments to maintain a present state in your life and nourish your body to be more resilient to your daily stressors.

Ready to learn more about how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease & achieve optimal health? Register now for our FREE web class with nutrition expert Kelly LeVeque.

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