How Stress Affects Gut Health (and What to Do About It)

How Stress Affects Gut Health (and What to Do About It)

stressed out woman at the computerStress is physical. It’s caused by physical phenomena in the material world. It manifests as a physiological response using physical hormones and neurotransmitters and other chemical messengers in the body. It changes biomarkers, neurochemistry, behavior, appetites, and our perception of the world around us. Stress can make us fly off the handle at something that we wouldn’t even notice in a normal state of mind. Stress can make us eat food we’d never normally consider eating.

And, like other physical phenomena our bodies interact with, stress can affect our gut health.

The first hint of this relationship lies in that split second sensation most people feel in high-intensity situations. You feel it right there in your gut. It’s a cue from the environment that things are going to get hairy for a little while, and you should prepare yourself. The gut is so central to everything, it’s our first real interface with the outside world. The gut is where food goes. It’s where outside nutrients or pathogens or interlopers try to gain entry to our inner world. The “gut feeling” is a Primal one that we cannot ignore.

So what happens to our guts when we endure too much stress without relief?

Stress and leaky gut.

They used to say “leaky gut” was a myth. It’s not. In clinical trials, they call it “intestinal permeability,” but it describes the same phenomenon: instead of the tight junctions that line our gut closely regulating the passage of toxins, allergenic particles, and nutrients into the body, the gates are thrown open to allow anything entry into circulation. This can increase or trigger autoimmune disease, allergic reactions to foods, and infiltration of toxins and pathogens. The end result is increased inflammation and oxidative stress, and there are a whole host of diseases and conditions linked to leaky gut.

Stress is a major and reliable trigger for leaky gut.‘>5 Many of these changes to the gut bacteria makeup stem from the increased cortisol and other stress hormones, which have been shown to have profound effects on the species living in our guts.

Stress and gut motility.

Stress tends to slow gastric emptying while speeding up intestinal transit times. This means you’re not digesting your food very well or quickly, but once it’s in your intestines it moves fast. That can make toilet visits rather too urgent and productive, while the actual eating—the assimilation of nutrients, the digestion, the extraction of the good stuff—becomes less productive.‘>7 It’s all there.

Stress and disordered eating.

There’s nothing worse for gut health than eating junk food, especially if you’re coming from an otherwise healthy Primal way of eating.

But that’s what stress does to many people: increases their susceptibility to the temptations of processed food. When you’re sitting in traffic for four hours a day, that Burger King drive thru starts looking real good. When you’re working 12 hours days, the last thing many of you want to do is go home and spend an hour preparing a healthy dinner. I get it, I understand it, but the fact remains that eating that way is terrible for gut health and function (and you know it, don’t you?).

Worse still, if you’re under a lot of stress, eating that junk food is less likely to satisfy you. Your food reward system in the brain grows duller, requiring greater quantities of even tastier junk food to satisfy its demands and “trigger” the food reward effect.‘>9

Don’t let stress snowball.

Acute stress is a healthy part of the human experience. It’s why we have a stress response in the first place: to help us respond to difficult, stressful situations that we encounter in the world. It’s not “unhealthy.” And sure, while an acute stress response will transiently upregulate intestinal permeability and trigger changes to gut motility, those changes dissipate when the stress resolves. Exercise itself is a stressor; a hard workout will increase intestinal permeability for a short while, but it resolves soon after.

The problem is when we let stress snowball into a chronic condition. We allow it to build up and accumulate and take up permanent residence in our bodies. Then it doesn’t resolve, and that’s when we start seeing the other effects on gut health and function.

Improve your sleep hygiene (and maybe take melatonin).

Melatonin isn’t just a “sleep hormone.” It also acts as an antioxidant, affects a whole range of health measures, and, yes, protects your gut against stress-induced alterations.‘>11

Now I’d love to hear from you. How does stress affect your gut function? What have you noticed? And how do you deal with stress, especially as it relates to your gut?

Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care.


The post How Stress Affects Gut Health (and What to Do About It) appeared first on Mark’s Daily Apple.

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