This is the third and final installment in our series on stress where we will examine the impact on our gut health. Stress comes in two forms acute and chronic. An example of acute stress in life is the loss of a job. It happens and while difficult, we usually find another job so it is relatively short lived. The other type is chronic and hangs around day in and day out. A good example of chronic stress is working at a job that just makes you miserable every day. You wake up stressed and then go to bed stressed too. Any acute stress can certainly become chronic if a person does not handle it well or if it continues over a period of time. Chronic stress is the type of stress that has the biggest impact on our health and well being.
So how does stress affect our gut? We have two nervous systems in our body. Most of us have heard of our central nervous system. It is the one that is central to nearly all vital functions in our body. However, we also have a second “mini” system known as the enteric nervous system that directly influences our digestive processes. This is the one responsible for that nauseous feeling before a big presentation or you may be more familiar with the feeling of “butterflies” in your stomach. These two systems are connected by the vagus nerve and make up the gut-brain axis.
Chronic stress causes all sorts of reactions at the gut level. It decreases blood flow to our digestive system, decreases gastric secretions needed for proper digestion and enzyme production plus impairs the mucosal lining, which ultimately leads to a weakened immune system among other health issues. Chronic stress doesn’t always come from events outside the body though. It can come from the food we consume on a daily basis. Take for example, food intolerance and how subtle their signs and symptoms can be in our lives. There are seven common foods that are the source of intolerance and allergies: eggs, soy, shellfish, dairy, tree nuts, peanuts and wheat. An allergy is severe and life threatening, while intolerance can go unnoticed for a period of time. Symptoms of intolerance can range from acne and headaches all the way to vomiting and diarrhea. Daily consumption of dairy for someone who is lactose intolerant is a chronic stressor on the body. Watch our ThriveTV episode on dairy.
Ever wonder how chronic stress can cause us to gain weight? Cortisol is a hormone we produce and need but carrying around chronic stress causes cortisol to stay elevated impacting insulin production resulting in weight gain especially around our mid section. It also makes it difficult to lose weight as well. Lastly, chronic stress disrupts the fine balance of “good” bugs and “bad” bugs in our gut known as our gut flora. Gut Flora is important for nutrient absorption, digestion and a healthy immune system. Some even think our gut flora impacts our ability to lose weight and contributes to obesity.
So what can you do to combat chronic stress in your life?
We discussed breathing in a previous article, which is a great place to start. Make this a daily habit and use it when you are feeling stressed. Spend time outdoors with nature. The color green is calming, promotes rest and is said to reduce anxiety. Take a walk at lunch or better yet eat your lunch outside if you can. Bring nature indoors by having fresh flowers in your home or try a little gardening. While stress cannot be completely eliminated from our lives, we can take steps to limit the impact it will have on us.