The Four Ways Stress Impacts Your Gut Health

Posted April 17, 2018

Our stress response works extremely well when there is an immediate physical stressor, such as a dangerous predator, because we can react and then quickly return to a normal balanced state once we have handled the situation. However, our stress response has not yet evolved to deal with the plentiful assortment of long-term stressors in everyday modern life.

Constant stimulation of your sympathetic nervous system via the hypothalamus gland, either through your thoughts or your five senses, is one of the major causes of hormonal imbalance and weight gain. Your brain responds to stress by encouraging a high intake of fatty and sugary foods – the so-called comfort foods that cause stubborn weight gain. So, taking active steps to beat stress and calm your nervous system is essential for fat loss. Stress can also have a big impact on your digestion. Your body does not easily manage stress and digest food simultaneously. We are wired this way for very basic reasons.

The physiologic stress response is your body’s survival mechanism, also known as the fight or flight response. When you are being attacked, your body is not concerned with digesting food. Instead, it will garner all its energy to focus on the attack at hand. Depending on the severity of the attack, this may cause your digestion to completely shut off, leaving the food in your gut un-metabolized.

In the case of a less severe attacks such as poor diet, medications, work-related anxiety, poor sleep, dwelling on negative thoughts, your digestive system slows as the breakdown and absorption of nutrients becomes compromised as enzymes and acid levels decrease, transit time may increase or decrease, gut immunity may be compromised, and bloating can increase. More specifically:

1. Stress Impacts Digestive Transit Time and Peristalsis

When you eat, you want your food to be in your digestive system for a certain length of time. This allows your gut to absorb the nutrients it needs, and, at the same time, allows it to get rid of any waste. As we’ve seen, when you are stressed, digestion can literally shut down. This can lead to constipation. Constipation interrupts the detoxification process that naturally happens during normal digestion. This can lead to a whole host of problems including gas, bloating, stomach pain, and weight gain. Constipation also increases the risk of PMS, breast tenderness, and weight gain around the hips and thighs as it contributes to an increase of estrogen in the body. Every bowel movement helps with estrogen release, so we want to make sure our digestive system is moving well two to three times per day.

Stress can also have the opposite effect on your digestive tract. For some constitutions, it can cause food to move too quickly through your system, not leaving enough time for the nutrients to be absorbed, which leads to nutritional deficiencies.

Give yourself the transit-time test:

The Bowel Transit Time Test is an excellent way to measure how long it takes for a substance to be eliminated through the bowels. Optimally it should take 18 to 24 hours for food to completely move through the digestive tract. A shorter time is associated with diarrhea, bowel irritation, bowel toxicity, malabsorption and increased peristalsis. A longer transit time is associated with constipation and increases the likelihood of bowel toxemia and dysbiosis. A longer transit time can also be an indication of low fiber and/or water in the diet, and other digestive problems. It can also be associated with hypothyroidism (as thyroid hormones impact bowel peristalsis – by the way – stress suppresses thyroid hormone activity).

The test involves taking 4 activated charcoal tablets, which stains the stool dark black or grey and recording the time it takes to transit through the digestive system:

Normal Transit Time with Residual Color on Next Stool: This indicates that patients have an optimal transit time but may be lacking in fiber or water, as the charcoal should be expelled in one bowel movement.

Fast Transit Time (ie, less than 18 hours): A fast transit time is associated with diarrhea, which may be acute or chronic.

Learn more about the test here. 

2. Stress Can Cause Heartburn and Bloating

Heartburn affects 20% of our population, and the biggest selling over-the-counter medications are digestive aids. That means that there are way too many people dealing with daily digestive discomfort.

The physiologic stress response can cause the sphincter that closes off the esophagus from the stomach to spasm. When this happens, stomach acid can make its way back up into the esophagus, causing it to burn the esophageal lining. Over time, this can leave you in a lot of pain – and more prone to disease. Taking heartburn medication will be a temporary relief, as it decreases or stops the production of stomach acid all together. Once you stop taking the medication, however, chances are the heartburn will return, unless you have uncovered the reason that you have heartburn in the first place. Many people associate heartburn with poor diet, smoking, and drinking alcohol, but your negative self-talk and your fast-paced schedule can also be to blame. Stress also impacts our ability to make stomach acid, and as stomach acid levels decrease, it can become a major cause of gas, bloating, sluggish digestion, and contribute to poor nutrient absorption of minerals, vitamin B12 and biotin.

The best way to combat heartburn, in addition to tackling your stress, is by completing my four-week Supercharged Detox Diet in Clear Medicine office or via phone, and by following my instructions to complete the stomach acid challenge. You can also master stress and improve your digestion in my 5-week Hormone Diet Bootcamp, that covers all the facets of stress in a fun and interactive setting!

Emotional stress can really “eat you up” from the inside, and lead to physical discomfort. If you are questioning whether your thoughts can affect your physicality, then think of something that makes you angry and notice how your heartbeat instantly rises. These negative emotions can create a constant low level of stress, which often presents as heartburn. One of the best ways to manage stress is to stay in the moment as so many of us tend to worry about the past or have fears about the future. When you find yourself spiraling in stress, close your eyes and ask yourself, what do I hear right now? When you focus on a sense, you can’t be anywhere but in this precious moment. Then you can be taking the time to notice feelings, process them, and then let them go.

3. Stress Weakens Your Gut Immunity

Did you know that roughly 60 – 70% of your body’s immunity is housed in your gut? This makes your digestive system the largest immune organ in your body. It is also one of the largest hormone-producing tissues in the body, so it is impossible to balance our hormones with any type of digestive concerns.

You can have pounds of bacteria in your gut. Some of it is good bacteria, and some of it is not so good. Your good bacteria help you to fight off viruses, helps you to digest your food, and helps to produce chemical reactions to help your brain and body function properly. Revisit all the benefits of healthy bacteria in your gut in my past blog post here. This good bacteria is vital to your body’s immune function.

When you are in a stress response, the chemical reaction that is produced by the sympathetic nervous system can compromise a large proportion of your good gut bacteria. Over time, this can lead to a weakened immune system, and overall inflammation of the body. Looking deeper, the Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology published a recent study showing that constant stress negatively affects the amount and diversity of your good gut flora.

You can strengthen your immune system by taking a probiotic supplement; eating foods that naturally contain probiotics, such as kefir, kimchi, and yogurt; and limiting foods with refined sugar. Sugar feeds the bad bacteria in your gut, which can lead to not only a weaker immune system, but low energy, low mood, digestive disorders, weight gain, and more. To rid the harmful bacterial and yeast that cause bloating, brain fog and cravings I often prescribe three capsules of Vitamin Candida at breakfast and 4 capsules of Vitamin Caprylex at bedtime for four weeks.

4. Stress Impacts Digestive Blood Flow and Metabolism, Which Causes Belly Bloat

Another way the stress response can affect your digestive system is by decreasing overall blood flow to the body. When you are stressed, your blood flow is redirected to the brain and to the limbs, as the body perceives you are under attack. You need the blood directed to those parts of your body for quick thinking and fighting or fleeing. If your body is stressed while you are eating, due to eating too fast, eating in a negative emotional state, or eating too much, then it can cause your metabolism to slow down.

Stress chemistry produces two hormones that are part of this whole process – cortisol and insulin. These hormones that are released when you are stressed tell the body to store weight, store fat, and not build muscle.

To avoid this happening in your body? Slow down and breathe – just four deep belly breaths will trick your body into the relaxation response. The best state for your body to metabolize food is when it’s present and relaxed. And use these natural foods and herbs to help digestive metabolism and belly bloat:

Foods with natural enzymes: Fresh pineapple contains bromelain, and this is a digestion-promoting enzyme while papaya has papain, which helps break down food and digest proteins. Pineapples also contain multiple anti-inflammatory enzymes. Blueberries, raspberries and grapefruit also contain naturally occurring digestive enzymes. Simply ¼ cup with a difficult to digest meal is enough to help improve your digestion.

Fresh herbs: I recommend using at least THREE bunches of fresh herbs per week – dill, parsley, cilantro, watercress, rosemary – all of these are anti-inflammatory but also when you use them in a larger quantity (i.e. a whole bunch in your salad), there is enough bitter components to help digestion and liver function. Consider herbs as a green vegetable, instead of just a garnish and you will find your digestion will improve.
Black pepper: Black Pepper is common condiment, but in Asia, it’s also used as a detoxifier and anti-aging herb. Due to its warming tendency on the digestive system, black pepper helps with digestion and relieves gas. It’s also known to increase circulation and help regulate blood pressure. Sprinkle fresh ground pepper on your meals for best results.

Celery: Celery is a natural diuretic, so it can help to relieve water retention. It’s also a rich source of insoluble fiber, which adds bulk to your stool and speeds the passage of food through your system. If you have hard stools or frequent constipation, adding celery to your diet can improve your digestive system health and get your bloating under control in no time.

Foods that promote friendly gut bacteria: Probiotics in your gut also play a role in helping digestive certain carbohydrates, absorb minerals, eliminate toxins, prevent allergies and keep bad bacteria under control. Select fermented foods that have not been pasteurized (this will kill the natural probiotics) for optimal digestive health. These include: Natto, Miso, Kimchee, Tempeh, Kefir, Yogurt, Olives, Sauerkraut, Pickles. The best way to ensure that you are consuming traditionally, non-processed fermented foods is to prepare them at home.

Cucumber: Cucumber is a great digestive aid and natural diuretic. Erepsin, a protein present in cucumber aids in proper digestion. The dietary fiber in cucumbers can expel toxins from the digestive system, improve elimination and reduce constipation. Ascorbic acid and caffeic acid present in cucumbers can reduce fluid retention, diminish puffiness and eliminate swelling.

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