When our gut health is out of balance, our bodies often will send us signals to alert us that something is ‘off’. One example that this can manifest is through feelings of stress and anxiety. You may feel bloated, stomach cramps, or even experience bouts of diarrhea or indigestion during a stressful time.
This is because our brains and our gut are in constant, two-way communication with each other through the gut-brain connection. Physically, this happens via the vagus nerve that connects them together. When in balance, this system can help our bodies stay in harmony and regulate our immune response and decrease gut inflammation. However, it can be disrupted by stress hormones when stressful situations occur.
Our gut microbiome also plays a critical role in the gut-brain connection and two-way communication. The gut microbiome is a complex system where a community of bacteria affect noticeable changes in our mood, hormones, immune system, and metabolism. These bacteria can be beneficial or harmful in nature, and the composition of the types of bacteria that make up our gut microbiome can vary depending on our lifestyle, diet, environments, and genetics.
Stress and trauma can introduce changes in our gut microbiome and gut barrier function by increasing inflammation and levels stress hormones. Stress can also disrupt the pathways that facilitate the gut-brain connection, such as our HPA axis that usually helps to mediate stress, and can change the communication between the gut and brain via the vagus nerve.
Balancing these bacterial communities plays an important role in regulating gut barrier function as well as brain function and behavior. When harmful bacteria overpopulate, the chemicals and waste products they create can leak out of our gut, into our bloodstream, and affect our mood and health.
Some common stress-related GI symptoms include:
Sometimes when we experience these symptoms, they can bring on even more anxiety and worry. We start to wonder what is happening in our bodies and why. We spiral about our symptoms, especially when they get worse, and feel out of control because we can’t seem to fix them, which contributes to even more stress and anxiety.
But how do we know if these symptoms are due to a larger underlying problem other than stress? Some signs and symptoms that what we are experiencing could be related to a more serious condition include:
If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, it may be beneficial to see your primary care provider to discuss them in more detail and also receive a referral to a specialist as needed.
The good news is, there are ways to support the gut-brain connection and foster a healthy microbiome through our own conscious decisions. Below are some tips to manage stress that may also have positive impacts on your current symptoms and mental health as well.
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