There are several factors that cause stress to negatively impact your health. Stress can trigger or worsen an autoimmune disease because of its effect on your immune system. But, chronic stress can also damage your gut, which, as you know by now is the gateway to health, opening the door for a whole host of issues. The truth is that there are more and more patients with stress as a primary cause of their autoimmune and other chronic diseases, and it’s not just adults! Children are suffering from stress-related health problems as well! In this article we’ll take a look at how stress affects your gut.
How Does Stress Damage Your Gut?
Research has linked high levels of stress with autoimmune disease, heart disease, ulcers, diabetes, hormone imbalances, and countless other chronic health conditions. However, even knowing this research, doctors and patients alike still tend to focus more on the physical causes of disease rather than the physical and mental stressors that are often impacting their health.
Gut is the gateway to health, and a damaged gut can impact other areas of your health, including your brain. But, the brain and digestive system actually share a two-way connection, so not only does a healthy gut affect your mental state, but your mental state affects how your gut functions.
Your Body’s Response to Stress
When you experience any kind of stress, whether physical (slamming on your brakes), emotional (going through a heartbreak), or mental (overloaded at work), your body processes it the same- through the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands respond by creating a flood of stress hormones, including cortisol, which affect both your digestive system and your immune system (80% of which is located in your gut). Our stress response evolved primarily as a means of self-preservation from our ancestors facing immediate, life-threatening situations. Unfortunately, that response isn’t ideal for the type of chronic, ongoing stress we face today.
The Problem with Chronic Stress
For one, the cortisol your adrenal glands produce revs up your immune system and is highly inflammatory. This makes sense if you have an open wound and need to use inflammation to fight infection, it’s less helpful, and even harmful, if you are chronically stressed because you are working 80 hours a week or your marriage is on the rocks. Sustaining a high level of inflammation is dangerous because it puts you on the autoimmune spectrum, and, if it continues over time, can trigger an autoimmune disease. Your body recognizes this, so it actually suppresses your immune system after a cortisol spike, leaving it anywhere from 40% – 70% below the baseline, to balance out the initial burst of inflammation.
When you experience acute stress, such as a bear attack or the flu, your body’s natural short-term inflammatory response is exactly what you want to temporarily boost your immune system and give you energy to run and immune cells to fight the flu. However, in today’s world, we are all experiencing more long-term and chronic stress, such as always being available on our smart devices, working long hours, and over committing ourselves. We are not shutting off and unplugging, giving our bodies a chance to rest and recover.
As a result, your body continuously cycles through periods of high inflammation, which can damage the gut lining, and a suppressed immune system, which leaves your gut vulnerable to pathogens you might be ingesting.
Furthermore, when your stress response kicks in, your digestive system shuts down. If you’re running from a predator, you need blood flow concentrated in your limbs for fleeing and your brain for problem solving, not in your gut for digesting your lunch.
How this Impacts Your Health
In this vulnerable state when the digestive system is suppressed or shut down, and your immune system is suppressed, harmful bacteria are able to multiply unchecked. The digestive system is temporarily unable to fight off bad bacteria by producing enough good bacteria to combat them, which can lead to imbalances in your gut flora such as Candida overgrowth.
What’s more, a shortage of good bacteria and an excess of yeast or bad bacteria can actually cause you to experience more stress because 95% of your serotonin (the “feel good” neurotransmitter that regulates mood, well-being, and sleep) is produced in the gut, and this production is slowed when you’re battling yeast overgrowth, a parasite, or other gut problems.
How to Combat Stress and Maintain a Healthy Gut
In today’s society full of never-ending demands on your time and the persistent feeling that you could always be doing more, it can be difficult to avoid stress. The key to keeping stress manageable and preventing it from causing negative health effects is to learn the tools to leave a stressful situation behind you after it’s over.
There is no one best way to relax and relieve stress. Everyone manages their stress differently, so don’t stress yourself out over trying to follow the perfect de-stressing routine! The important thing is to find what works for you personally, whether that’s doing yoga, going for a run, spending time with your family, spending time alone, working in your garden, going to church, or any other activity.
*Content above is adapted from Dr. Amy Myers.
The brain and digestive system actually share a two-way connection, so not only does a healthy gut affect your mental state, but your mental state affects how your gut functions.
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Hi, we are the Heal Faster bloggers. We gather practical, science-based content for you to learn everything about yourself - food, gut, emotion, stress, environmental toxicity, body products, etc., and how they all link to your optimal health.