How Does Stress Affect Your Digestive System?

The more we learn about the body and how it functions, the more we understand that it must be treated as a whole. Something that affects one part of your body is likely to have consequences elsewhere, and symptoms that appear in one area might be caused by the condition of another.

Much research has already been conducted into these connections between various body systems. Scientists have made incredible discoveries about the HPA axis, the neuroendocrine system, and the gut-brain axis – and how they relate to your overall wellbeing.

What Does This Mean For Digestive Health?

The essence of the ‘gut-brain axis’ is that what is happening in your brain can have a direct impact on the environment in your gut (and vice versa).

Your thoughts and feelings can affect the composition of your gut flora, increase inflammation, and increase your susceptibility to pathogens such as Candida albicans. In short, your brain can hinder your digestion.

These feedback loops mean that an imbalanced and inflamed gut can contribute to depression and anxiety too.

That’s why reducing your stress levels can be so beneficial to your digestion and your gut health.  And rebalancing your gut can make you feel happier and less stressed! Here’s how it works.

What Is Stress?

When we are stressed or worried, the body switches into ‘fight or flight’ mode. This is a built-in characteristic that hails from our hunter-gatherer times.

Back then, a typical “stressor” was the very real danger of coming face-to-face with a warring tribe or dangerous animal. This would stimulate the adrenal glands to start pumping out the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.

These stress hormones cause our muscles to tense up, our heart to race, and our whole body to feel alert and ‘wired’. Stress also shuts down the digestive system, which may lead to gastrointestinal discomfort such as bloating, constipation or diarrhea.

How Stress Affects Your Digestive System

Have you ever had a “gut feeling” about something? Or have you felt depressed and irritable even when things are going okay?

It could be all in your gut! Your gut contains just as many neurons as the spinal cord, which is one of the reasons why researchers now refer to your gut as the ‘second brain’. (1)

A complicated network of neurons, hormones and chemicals make up an intricate connection between your gut microbiome and your brain. When you’re stressed out, this network carries signals from the brain that make real, physical changes to the way that your gut operates.

This powerful link between your gut health and your nervous system has shed light on many issues related to mood and mental health.

There is substantial evidence that the lining of your gastrointestinal tract has a direct influence on your brain, and that that your gut is very sensitive to emotions. Whether you’re angry, sad, anxious or elated, you’ll feel it in your gut. And in the same way, your brain has a direct effect on the nervous system within your stomach and intestines.

You may have already experienced how psychological stress can affect your body.

Remember how your stomach reacts when you’re nervous: butterflies in the pit of your stomach on your first date, or when you were going for that important job interview? That’s a direct result of the “fight or flight response”.

This is when your body senses a threat, so it quickly redirects blood flow away from parts of the digestive tract and towards muscle tissue. That “butterfly” feeling is triggered by decreased blood flow to your stomach.

The short-term fight-or-flight response reprioritizes your internal functions, leading to a slowing of your digestive processes. This is just one of the immediate effects that stress has on your digestion. Chronic, long-term stress that has even more serious consequences for your digestive health. (2)

Chronic, Long-Term Stress Is Much More Problematic

Extended psychological stress has been linked to a host of changes in the gut. Research has shown that stress changes the crucial balance of microorganisms that exist in the intestines, which can have major implications for your overall health. (3)

If you’ve ever been stressed for a long period of time, you may have noticed that you got sick more often – and took longer to recover. This is because your gut flora forms a very important part of your immune system.

When the bacteria in your intestines are healthy and in balance, you’ll have more ‘good’ bacteria than ‘bad’. As a result, your immune system is primed to attack and overthrow any invaders.

But when this balance is disturbed – as can happen with chronic stress – you immune system is weakened. The result is that you become more vulnerable to pathogenic organisms such as Candida and other undesirable infections.

Although research in humans has been limited, studies on mice have shown that stress leads to very significant changes in the gut flora. The diversity of microorganisms in the gut is reduced, and certain microorganisms begin to colonize more effectively and aggressively than others. (4)

Chronic stress doesn’t just lead to reduced immune function. Stress impacts the body in a number of ways, beginning with the gut. Digestive disorders such as GERD, ulcers, and IBS have all been linked to psychological stress. Researchers have also suggested that chemical changes in the gut may lead to a weakening in the intestinal walls, contributing to Leaky Gut Syndrome.

How An Imbalanced Gut Can Cause Stress, Anxiety and Even Depression

Much of the way that poor gut health affects your mood is to do with serotonin. Serotonin is one of your ‘happy chemicals’ that is required for good mood and healthy sleeping patterns. Around 90% of your serotonin receptors are located in your gut, which has major implications for how your diet and nutritional status can affect your emotions.

What’s more, the serotonin made in your gut is structurally similar to the serotonin in the brain but made by different cells. If your gut microbiome is fighting an overgrowth of bad bacteria, its ability to make enough serotonin will be severely affected.

A recent study showed that low serotonin in the neurons of the gut can lead to physical symptoms such as constipation. In the same way, low levels of serotonin in your brain can lead to anxiety, sleeplessness and depression. (5)

Gastrointestinal distress is an additional burden for people with depression and there is evidence that both conditions arise from low serotonin. A study also conducted in mice found that a shortage of serotonin in the neurons of the gut can cause constipation, just as a serotonin shortage in the brain can lead to depression (6).

What Can You Do About It?

Overcoming a dysfunctional gut-brain axis can’t be done overnight. It takes time and effort – and a good plan.

The important thing to remember about the gut-brain axis is that it’s a two-way street. This means you have to attack it in two ways. Work on your stress levels, and you’ll improve your digestion. At the same time, you’ll need to work on optimizing your gut microbiome in order to improve your mental health.

This is even more important when you have a Candida overgrowth. Your recovery plan will need to include strategies for tackling both your digestive and psychological health. This might involve antifungal treatment, stress mitigation and probiotics.

Here’s how to get on top of your digestive health AND your mental health:

Tips To Improve Digestive Health

The first thing you need to do to improve your gut health is to quit sugar. Excess sugar is the underlying cause of many digestive disorders, particularly yeast overgrowth. It’s the ‘fuel’ for pathogenic yeast and bacteria, allowing them grow and spread throughout your body.

Switching to a low-sugar diet should be your priority. Cut out anything that contains refined sugar: candy, chocolate, biscuits, cakes and almost anything that comes in a packet. If in doubt, check the nutritional information label on anything you buy in the supermarket.

The next thing you need to do is to add plenty of high-fiber foods and plants to your diet. These will help to keep you regular and promote a healthy gut microbiome. Look for antifungal foods too – these include garlic, coconut oil, onion, and seaweed. Use plenty of antifungal herbs in your dishes too: oregano, thyme, cayenne pepper, ginger and cinnamon.

Probiotics are also very important! Probiotic supplements are an effective way to restore and maintain a healthy balance of beneficial bacteria in the gut. When your levels of good bacteria improve, they’ll help to crowd out the ‘bad’ bacteria and yeast. Probiotic bacteria help to prevent harmful organisms from sticking to the walls of your gut and causing further problems.

Probiotics have been shown to restore and maintain healthy, balanced intestinal flora and support optimal digestive health. They can reduce the recurrence of yeast infections caused by Candida overgrowth and support the integrity of your gastrointestinal tract. Research also shows that probiotic supplementation can help to reduce inflammation in the gut and elsewhere.

When you’re buying a probiotic, make sure that it uses time-release tablets to get its safely bacteria to your gut. My recommended probiotic for Candida is the Balance ONE Probiotic.

4 Tips To Reduce Stress

1. Identify Your Stressors

Start by asking yourself, “What’s causing my stress?” Is it family, relationships, work, or something else? Write out a list of the things that make you unhappy, anxious, or negatively affecting your life. Be as honest and detailed as you can. Think about the times of day you feel most stressed or upset and make a link to what causes those feelings.

Then, write another list of the positive things. What makes you feel happy and alive? What gets you out of bed in the morning? What makes you laugh?

Once you’ve identified both the negative and the positive in your life, your goal should be fairly obvious: reduce the negative and increase the positive!

2. Meditation

Stress affects all of us in different ways, and it’s not always possible to avoid completely. But you can take steps to minimise the effect that stress has on your mind and body and allow yourself to recover from stressful episodes more effectively.

Meditation is a fantastic way of reducing your stress levels. Studies have shown that mindfulness-based meditation helps to relieve stress and anxiety and improve the ability to respond to stress in the future.

Researchers believe that meditation trains people to allow certain thoughts or feelings to pass by without causing stress or anxiety, and that they spend less time focusing on negative thoughts. It also appears that those who practice meditation regularly are less judgmental, more accepting, and treat themselves with more kindness. This is a crucial benefit of meditation practice. (7)

3. Get Moving

Exercising regularly not only improves your digestion; it can really cut down on your stress levels too. (8)

Try to get at least 30 minutes of cardio exercise per day. This can include running, cycling, swimming or anything that increases your heart rate and makes you breathe harder. (9)

You’ll be increasing your body’s production of endorphins (the ‘happy chemicals’ that boost your mood and energy) and also stimulating your digestive function simply through movement. Exercise is a proven remedy for both stress and gut health, and it can cost nothing at all.

Getting outside in the fresh air in itself can help bring down your anxiety too. In Japan, walking mindfully in nature is called forest bathing, and it’s a recognized treatment for stress.

4. Get More Sleep

As adults, we’re supposed to get at least 7-9 hours sleep per night – but most of us don’t get anywhere near that. Sleep is crucial to not only managing your stress levels and maintaining your immune system function, it allows your body adequate time for cell repair and restoration.

Help yourself to sleep better each night by going to bed at a set time. Prepare your bedroom by ensuring it’s dark and peaceful, without any noise or distractions. Turn off your phone, computer and the TV at least an hour before going to bed. And most importantly, cut down on your caffeine intake or at least don’t consume any foods or beverages that contain caffeine after midday.

Bringing it all together

If you focus only on your mental health or only on your digestion, you might be setting yourself up for failure. The connections and feedback loops between the brain and the gut, known collectively as the ‘gut-brain axis’, have been demonstrated time and again.

When you understand that your brain and gut are intrinsically linked, you might find it much easier to overcome your gut health issues. Best of all, your improved mood will motivate you to keep working on your gut!

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