Many of us are familiar with that “butterfly in our stomach” sensation when we are nervous or stressed. This is a great example of the brain-gut (and mind-body connection). The brain-gut connection goes a lot farther than that, and how we are feeling can directly influence our digestive health – and our digestive health can influence how we are feeling! This past weekend I did a presentation at a conference on Stress & Digestion and discussed this topic. Read on below for an overview of what I talked about!
Forms of Stress
Stressors can affect our body and minds in different forms:
Environmental toxins that we are exposed to on an everyday basis such as pollution, cleaning chemicals, cosmetics and the food that we eat all give rise to the stress response in the body. Psychological factors like anxiety, depression, stress and negative thoughts also trigger the stress response in the body. This is why our perception of stressors or negative events can really impact the way that the stressor affects our body. Biological stressors such as a chronic illness, injury or infection are also forms of stress too! Social factors can also work for you or against you. Studies have shown that meaningful social ties and connections can be one of the most important things you can have in your life for health and being lonely can be as hard on your health as smoking! Recently, I learned from a talk that having friends was one of the number one predictors for how you perform in every area of your life. With this being said, bring on the weekend social gatherings, since its protective of your health!
Now that we know different forms of stress, then we can categorize our stressors and be able to act on them more effectively.
Stress shows up in different ways for people. Hear is a list (non-exhaustive) of “stress symptoms”:
- Cognitive – memory issues, inability to concentrate, negative thoughts
- Emotional – depression, anxiety, moodiness, overwhelm
- Behavioural – poor eating habits, stimulant and drug use, lack of exercise and proper sleep hygiene practices, coping habits (nail biting, compulsions, eating or lack there of)
- Physical – aches/pains, digestive symptoms (nausea, diarrhea, constipation) , racing heart/chest pain, dizziness etc
How Stress Influences Digestion & Gut Health
It’s no surprise that many digestive disorders are worsened by stress. Irritable bowel, acid reflux, nausea and even Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis flare ups can be triggered or provoked by stress. For example, in my everyday life I eat a gluten and dairy-free diet due to food sensitivities, and if I eat gluten or dairy it seems to affect me a lot more during this time. However, when I’m on vacation, I am in a more constant relaxed state so I can better tolerate my food sensitivities. Interesting, but there is some science to it! Here’s how this, and other gut-brain connections work:
- Stress releases pro-inflammatory cytokines, which creates a chronic inflammatory state in the body. These inflammatory molecules can disrupt the integrity of the connective tissue that hold together the intestine cells, otherwise known as “tight junctions”. These tight junctions become “loose” and food particles that are not supposed to get through these spaces end up escaping into the blood stream!
- The inflammatory state promotes the immune system to react to food proteins in the blood stream in a way that it shouldn’t, causing a food sensitivity (also known as IgG reaction). IgG food sensitivity reactions can show up as indigestion, nausea, bloating, mood disturbances, headaches and pain. When we are in a more relaxed state, inflammation is reduced and food sensitivities can improve.
- Probiotics can help modulate the stress response via the gut-brain connection, and likely through reducing inflammation. Cultures that eat fermented foods and fruits and vegetables for prebiotics end up having less digestive disorders and also less depression, stress and anxiety.
- Stress causes a dysregulation in the neural connection between the central nervous system (the brain) and the enteric nervous system (the gut). This causes the signaling involved in stomach closure (esophageal sphincter) to be disrupted leading to GERD. For example, when the stomach sphincter is supposed to be closed (because you are eating and acid is being produced), the sphincter gets mixed signals and might remain open. The stress response also signals to the intestines that there is a threat and whatever is in there needs to come out – cue urgent bowel movement! With this, cramping, nausea, bloating and gas can result.
- Vegetable – Kimchi, Sauerkraut, Pickles or other fermented vegetables
- Dairy – Yogurt, Kefir
Eating Behaviors Affected by Stress
Its no coincidence that we crave simple carbohydrate-based foods that are high sugar, fat, and processed when we are stressed. The stress hormone cortisol increases when we are under acute or chronic stressors and reduces our body’s ability to process insulin (allows your cells to take up fuel), leaving you hungry, feeling low blood sugar and craving that chocolate cookie!
As a society, constant consumption of simple carbohydrates, or otherwise known as “empty foods” leaves us producing inflammation in the body and deficient in nutrients and vitamins. Lack of fiber from fruits and vegetables also makes us low in short chain fatty acids (SCFA) that are important in colon motility, blood flow and gastrointestinal pH. Dietary fiber is fermented by gut bacteria (probiotics), producing these SCFA. Therefore it’s also important to combine dietary fiber (or prebiotics) with probiotics for optimal gut-protecting effects.
These dietary factors as a whole, along with the stress response, are paralleled with higher rates of obesity, and digestive disorders such as Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Food sensitivities and Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
Good Sources of Short Chain Fatty Acids/Prebiotics
- Inulin – artichokes, leeks, garlic, onions, wheat, rye, asparagus
- Fructooligosaccharides (FOS) – fruits, vegetables (avocados, garlic, onions)
- Pectin – apples, apricots, carrots, oranges
- Guar gum – legumes (guar beans)
Although FOS can be helpful in producing short chain fatty acids for gut health, some individuals with IBS may react to foods containing high amounts of FOS’s. Seek a naturopathic doctor for guidance with this.
The moral of the story is
Stress affects our digestion by causing a disordered connection between the central nervous system and the enteric nervous system (gut-brain) leading to worsening IBS, Food sensitivities, GERD and IBD. Stress and poor diet promote inflammation in the body that can lead to the development of food sensitivities, obesity and even IBD. Fermented foods/probiotics, fruits and vegetables (prebiotics), along with stress reduction can reduce this from occurring and can lead to less nausea, acid reflux, irritable bowel and an improved mood.
If you want to learn more about how naturopathic medicine can improve your digestive or stress-related concerns, book in for a Complementary 15 Minute Meet & Greet or for an Initial Consultation by clicking here
Source: Dr. Kaitlyn Zorn, ND & Dr. Elvis Ali, ND. PowerPoint presentation: Stress and Digestion. Medical Qi Gong Conference. Grimsby, Ontario.