The Mind-Gut Connection – how does stress affect the gut?
At best, you call this sensation in your stomach butterflies; at worst, it feels like someone has tied your colon in a knot. You might even feel like you want to be sick or that you cannot be too far away from the bathroom.
It is also fair to mention that the connection goes both ways. Mind, the mental health charity is clear that there is a link between what you eat and drink and how you feel.
Even on a basic level, we have all felt that sensation of being very alert after too many coffees. We suddenly feel anxious and jumpy and are quick to take offense.
Spending some time learning about this mind-gut connection could do much to ease digestive problems and to increase your sense of mental wellbeing.
What is the mind-gut connection?
Harvard Medical School is clear that the brain has “a direct effect on the stomach and intestines.” The esteemed university also claims that “a troubled intestine can send signals to the brain.” Therefore, not only can anxiety cause medical issues with the stomach, but gastrointestinal complaints are commonly linked to symptoms of depression and anxiety. There is an intimate connection between the two areas of the body and for evident reasons.
When you are about to eat, you need your brain to send signals to your stomach to create the right intestinal fluids to break down this food.
However, a troubled mind sends the wrong signals and creates an imbalance.
Equally, what you feed your body impacts its performance. Your brain is therefore impacted as much as the rest of the body by your choice of diet.
First, we need to understand if our gut problems are stress-related, so we need to look for other symptoms. Second, it is vital to assess the impacts of stress on the gut and whether this matches your experience. Finally, if your stress impacts your gut or your diet is causing your stress, you need practical advice on making life better for yourself.
Stress can manifest itself in unique ways in different individuals. However, there are some commonly experienced symptoms, which you might recognize.
- Sleep: sleep is usually disturbed in some way. You may have trouble dropping off because your mind is whirring, or you find yourself waking up with a head full of thoughts.
- Headaches: stress can also manifest as painful and prolonged headaches. You are likely holding your body quite tense, and consequently, your body will feel pain.
- Weight: weight inconsistencies are typical, either losing or gaining weight.
- Approach to life: you may find you cannot concentrate, feel like withdrawing from society, and continuously feel nervous. You might find it harder to remember details.
- Emotions: feeling close to tears or crying is standard, as is being quick to anger.
Knowing whether the problem is in your mind or whether the issue is in the gut is a chicken and egg sort of argument. The two areas of your body are so intertwined that your mental state could be the direct cause of your stomach problems.
If you resolve what is troubling the mind, then the issues in the stomach will ease too.
It is not just feeling sick or minor indigestion. Psychological distress can cause severe inflammation in the GI tract. In addition to being painful, this will make it difficult to eat and hard for you to get the nutrition that will help your body stay balanced. The stress causes GI issues, but then these GI issues escalate the anxiety.
Why does this happen? Well. You are still designed for living in the wild with creatures out to kill you.
We are not an apex predator, and we need physiology that kicks in to protect us when we are in danger. If a bear is running towards you, then more incredible speed, strength, and mental alertness are going to save your life.
The instinct for fight, flight, or freeze is created in your sympathetic nervous system with the release of the stress hormone cortisol. The medical term for this response is an acute stress response.
While helpful when in a real life-or-death situation, this hormone is not so useful when your boss presses you to meet a deadline. A small amount of encouragement is fair, but if you are pressured to the point of feeling threatened, then your body goes into hyperdrive.
Your heart rate will increase, you will breathe quicker, your blood pressure will rise, and your blood cholesterol increases. You will naturally tense your muscles, including those in your gut: the intestines, bowel, and rectum.
The impact, if not given time to resolve itself, is havoc on your digestive system.
The havoc mentioned includes:
- Increased stomach acids resulting in heartburn, indigestion, and acid reflux
- Oesophageal spasms
- Diarrhea and leakage, which require the use of incontinence pads
- Lower back pain
Consistent exposure to stress can bring on much harsher conditions of the gut, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), Peptic Ulcers, and Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD). These conditions result from oxygen and blood flow being restricted to the stomach due to continued acute stress.
If you are ever diagnosed with one of these disorders, your doctor will likely ask you to reduce your stress by changing your lifestyle choices. This might mean changing the way you work or where you work or mean taking regular exercise.
It cuts both ways.
It is true that “you are what you eat,” as the adage claims. We sometimes forget that our bodies are biological input-output machines and what we consume is the outcome we achieve. Therefore, if you feed your body unhealthy foods, you are in danger of an unhealthy mind.
Excess sugar and caffeine can lead to irregularities in mood that can have a knock-on effect on the way people treat you and, in turn, how you feel about yourself. If you keep yourself hydrated and you eat a balanced diet, you may find your tolerance levels are much higher, and you become much more contented.
You can also do much to improve your gut health and so increase your sense of mental wellbeing. If you eat plenty of probiotic and prebiotic foods, you can help to keep the balance of helpful bacteria in your gut.
Prebiotics are useful because they encourage the body to develop microbes. You can find this prebiotic in vegetables, whole grains, beans, and legumes. Probiotics can be found in live yogurt, some cheeses, and fermented food like miso paste.
If you feel that adapting your diet could be the answers, then you should consider following these tips:
- Eat plant-based foods: although veganism might be too extreme an option for you personally, your gut health is much improved when you consume a range of plants as part of your diet. It might mean that you have a good selection of greens on your Sunday roast.
- Increase your water intake: being hydrated will make you feel less fatigued and more energetic, but it also helps you to digest fiber more effectively.
- Increase your fiber intake: you want more water because you should also be eating more nuts, fruit, whole grains, and vegetables that are filled with fiber.
- Use extra virgin olive oil: the Mediterranean diet has a good reputation for its use of helpful herbs like basil and emphasis on fresh fish and vegetables. However, the use of EVVO as the fat of choice is also essential as it is packed with friendly microbes.
- Avoid processed foods: any food that is presented to you for convenience and speed will be filled with unhelpful fats and sugars, as well as some chemicals your system will find challenging.
Your lifestyle might need to change too.
While it is tempting to believe that eating differently will solve our woes, sometimes our health issues result from the way we live our lives.
If you are someone who is always on the go and working to tight deadlines, if you work through your lunch and only stop to sleep the three or four hours you allocate to rest – then you may have an issue. It is unlikely in this scenario that your gut is causing your stress.
It is more likely that your stress is the root cause of your stomach problems.
So, it might be time to ask yourself whether your life is good for your health.
Take time to do an audit and consider how much exercise you get, how much sleep you enjoy, how much quiet time is in your day, and whether you are turning to substances such as alcohol to help you relax.
When you have done your audit, you will be among the significant proportion of the population who will need to do some of the following:
- Sleep more: WebMD revealed the results of a study that suggests that the sleep we get at the weekend could prolong our lives. However, more importantly, appropriate sleep levels help us recuperate and process the events of the day in our minds.
- Exercise regularly: Exercise helps to burn off the excessive hormone release caused by stress and tires the body, making it ready for sleep.
- Cut back on alcohol: although you might feel that alcohol helps relieve your stress, over-indulging can negatively impact your gut health and your mental well-being.
- Meditate: mindfulness and yoga are genuinely great ways to reduce your stress. Finding a way to calm the mind and be comfortable with quiet is essential in controlling your levels of stress. If your thoughts are in freefall, then it is likely that your stress levels are controlling you.
Why it is worth making changes
Therefore, you should not be surprised when you go to your GP about gut issues and the doctor talks about your lifestyle. Equally, if you complain about stress, the medic might similarly ask you to adapt your diet. It is time to see your system as a whole and make the best choices for your body.
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