Research is constantly linking stress with various health disorders including Diabetes, heart conditions and hormonal imbalances, and studies show stress doesn’t just exacerbate some conditions – it can actually cause them1.
However too often we seek quick fixes and medications rather than addressing our dietary and lifestyle habits that drive this stress response on a daily basis. And it’s not just adults that suffer.
Recently, England’s children’s commissioner stated that poor mental health was becoming ‘part and parcel’ of childhood for many children, with as many as 20% of girls having a diagnosed mental health condition by age 142.
That’s why stress is one of the 4 pillars I address in my clinic, alongside weight management, gut health and brain health – all of which are so tightly intertwined they’re often impossible to separate.
In this article, I want to talk about how stress can affect your gut health and why this is important for all other aspects of health too. I’ll also share a couple of simple stress relief habits you can start to implement today.
CHRONIC vs ACUTE STRESS
Acute stress is one thing. A sudden dash for the train you need to catch to get to that appointment or a near miss while crossing the road. These are short lived, acute stresses and once you’re ‘out of danger’ the surge of stress hormones subsides and return to normal. This is the kind of stress our bodies are designed to deal with from caveman days of running from immediately life threatening situations such as hungry predators.
Chronic stress is a whole other ball game. Whether its physical (a long-term health condition) emotional (grief or heartbreak) or mental (important deadlines or overwhelm at work) your body interprets and responds in the same way: with a surge of stress hormones, including cortisol. But when the stress doesn’t go away where does that leave us?
THE PROBLEM WITH CHRONIC STRESS
With chronic, ongoing stress like so many of us face on a daily basis, our little adrenal glands that sit atop our kidneys just can’t catch a break. They’re constantly being triggered to pump out more and more cortisol to keep us powering on through all these daily stressors. At the same time, other bodily functions are suppressed – digesting that last meal isn’t a priority when your body thinks you need all your blood in your limbs and brain to run from that tiger, so things like digestion are constantly put on the backburner. If you’re lucky (I say that lightly!) Your adrenal glands might be able to keep pumping out a high level of cortisol for years. But eventually, with no reprieve to rest and recover, they burn out, crash – and so do you.
HOW STRESS IMPACTS YOUR GUT
The effects of high cortisol are far reaching. As well as suppressing digestive function, in the long term it also suppresses your immune system function (about 80% of which is located in your gut) and can lead to high insulin (the fat storage hormone) and increased hunger hormones. Stress can also cause negative changes in the balance of bacteria in your gut (microbiome) leading to a risk of inflammation, digestive disorders, nutrient deficiencies and many other far reaching consequences.
The gut and brain are connected by a two-way channel so while we’ve always known the brain can talk to the gut, we now know the gut can talk back. That imbalance in gut bacteria can therefore double back and exacerbate our chances of suffering from anxiety, depression (90% of the feel-good hormone serotonin is produced in the gut) and reduce our ability to effectively deal with stress.
Quite the vicious cycle isn’t it!
WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?
In a world full of seemingly never ending stressors, the key is in learning effective tools for switching off, putting things in perspective and learning to say no.
There is no silver bullet here and there is no one size fits all approach. You and your stressful situations are unique and therefore the way you deal with them will be equally as unique. The important thing is to try some techniques and see what works for you. In saying that, I’m going to give you a few common tips to try out.
I mean this both mentally and digitally. We’re bombarded with sensory input these days via phones, TV, laptops and media. Images, words and people evoke emotions – many of which can be negative. Switching off electronics and putting down the newspaper allows us a moment to recalibrate. Stare into space for a while and let your mind wander. Practice mindfulness or meditation techniques. Close your eyes and sit in a quiet space. Try some breathing exercises. Try to focus on positive things that bring you joy.
Sleep hygiene refers to the practices and habits that promote good sleep. Good sleep is vital to reducing stress as it lowers cortisol levels and leaves you better equipped to deal with challenges (ever tried a complex task when you’re tired? It’s a lot harder and a lot more stressful!)
Getting into routine: Our brains and bodies are programmed into routines and rhythms. Creating a consistent, repeatable routine in the lead up to sleep can help our bodies prepare for sleep long before our head hits the pillow. For example, Eat dinner à clean up and prepare for the next day à switch off tv, chat with loved ones à read a book in dim light à brush teeth à get into bed à breathing exercises or meditation à sleeeeep!
Switch off again: Some studies show that blue light emitted from screens suppresses the sleep inducing brain waves and encourages the ones that keep us alert3, as well as possibly risking the health of our eyes.
Don’t eat too close to bed time: Going to bed on a full stomach can impact sleep while the body works hard to digest. If you must eat late, eat a small, light meal with mainly vegetables and a little bit of protein.
Eat for your gut
Making food choices daily that promote a healthy, beneficial balance of bacteria will interfere with that vicious gut/brain cycle. Include fermented foods daily (kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut etc) and prebiotic foods (asparagus, garlic, onions, artichoke, bananas).
Move towards whole, unprocessed foods and eat as much variety as possible.
Give these a try and see how they make you feel. Experiment. Most of all, get in touch with yourself. Be aware of the things that cause you stress, how you feel when they happen and your response. Try to find ways to avoid the stress, adjust your response or disrupt the pattern to leave stress behind you once it’s over.
Head over to my facebook group for more stress busting tricks and gut health tips!