For some people they will scream yes at this title and for others this will be really confusing, “What do you mean feeling stressed in your gut?” or “Your gut doesn’t experience stress!”
For some people they can experience digestive symptoms when they are stressed, or their digestive systems may worsen when their stress levels sky rocket.
This is due to our Gut-Brain axis, the connection between our gut and our brain.
Have you ever felt incredibly nervous, perhaps about to give a presentation and needed to go to the bathroom urgently or perhaps had butterflies in your tummy?
Or felt so sick with nerves that you are not able to eat?
These are the signs your digestive system and brain, the centre of the nervous system, are connected.
Our Gut-Brain axis
There are multiple ways in which our gut and our brain are connected:
1. The vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve is our largest cranial nerve that runs from our brain via our cardiovascular system impacting our heart, lungs and also our digestive tract, which is where it ends. This particular nerve works on the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest component of the nervous system) and has the ability to pass messages from the brain to the digestive system and vice versa.
2. Neurotransmitter production.
Particular cells of the intestines of the gastrointestinal tract sense gut lining changes in the form of nutrients and microbial changes and release serotonin. Serotonin is a chemical (neurotransmitter) the body produces that’s needed for nerve cells and brain to function however it has also been linked to appetite, induction of sleep and controlling mood. Several studies have shown that low serotonin levels are associated with lower mood, and higher serotonin levels are associated with better mood.
3. Our gut bacteria.
The microbiome of our gut can produce their own hormones and these are released from the digestive tract and sent to the brain. Hormones are like chemical messengers in our body and disrupt the functioning of the body if there are too many or too little present.
4. The immune system.
70% of the immune system lies around the outskirts of our digestive system as this is an area of the body that is exposed to a wide range of foreign bugs. Our digestive system and immune system are closely linked and if either system is experiencing significant stress or not working optimally, the other system is notified.
The immune system also has close connections to the brain, not only to prevent bugs from entering the brain but also to alert the body to potential threats and will alert the brain to threats originating from the digestive tract.
What symptoms worsen with stress?
Pretty much every digestive symptom has the ability to worsen with stress however it does depend on you as an individual!
The symptoms I see most frequently that are exacerbated due to stress include:
- Bloating and flatulence
- Acid reflux or heartburn
- Diarrhoea or passing a bowel motion more than 2 times daily
- Abdominal pain
How do you know if your digestive symptoms are linked to stress?
This is the challenging aspect when addressing symptoms, it’s what I describe as working out the cause of the symptoms and why you are experiencing them.
Simply put, if your symptoms worsen during stressful periods or if symptoms are only experienced during stress then your digestive symptoms are most likely linked to stress. It’s a good idea to get these addressed quickly as it is showing a weakness in the digestive system that you want to get on top of before it worsens!
Ways to lower stress to support the gut?
The digestive system and nervous system thrive off good nutrition. It does not need to be fancy: try and avoid processed foods where possible and focus on whole food eating - fruits and vegetables, protein in the form of animal or plant sources, nuts and seeds, wholegrains and legumes and pulses.
2. Do something you enjoy.
As adults, this is something we find challenging however spending time each day (can be as little as 10-15 minutes) this can lower stress levels and give our nervous system an opportunity to relax slightly.
This does not need to be as intense as a run, simply moving the body on a daily basis can be enough to assist your stress levels to lower but also gives your digestive system the benefits also!
4. Stimulate that vagus nerve.
Stimulating the vagus nerve assists the body to recover from stress faster including the digestive system. For ways to stimulate the vagus nerve - click here.
If stress is causing you digestive concern, I have available my stress management ebooks to support you.
If it’s time for you to prioritise yourself and your health, a naturopathy consult is for you. Bookings can be made by clicking here.