Stress, anxiety, and gut health

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:

  • Cramps
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Indigestion
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea

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:

  • Bloody stools
  • Chronic or worsening symptoms
  • Abnormal lab values
  • Unintended weight loss

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.

  1. Practice deep breathing– Taking a moment to quietly reflect and focus on breathing can help reduce anxiety by distracting your focus away from other issues. Try the “box-breathing” technique, where you inhale for 4 counts, hold the breath for 4 counts, exhale for 4 counts, and pause for 4 counts before repeating this cycle.
  1. Physical activity– Yoga, stretching, and walking can help your body to reduce stress by releasing endorphins, stretching our muscles, and stimulating our digestive system to help you stay more regular. There are many poses in yoga, such as those that involve twisting or massaging through dynamic poses, that are designed to calm and stimulate our digestive tracts.
  1. Focus on your reactions– When we are operating out of a constantly stressed and anxious mindset, we may react quickly and intensely when things don’t go our way. Start paying attention to your initial reaction in these situations and consider how you may react differently instead when appropriate. Can you pause before responding? Can you respond more neutrally or with compassion instead of urgency, anger, and anxiety? This can be very powerful to start to re-train our mind and our bodies in our overall responses to stress.
  1. Listen to guided relaxation exercises or meditate– Just like taking deep breaths or doing yoga, this can help to refocus our mind on other things and distract ourselves from current chaos. It can also recenter our attention, promote mindfulness, and bring us into the present moment.
  1. Eating prebiotic and probiotic food sources daily, and supplementing as needed – Probiotics are live cultures of helpful bacteria. These are typically found in fermented foods like kimchi, yogurt, sauerkraut, and others. To begin, try incorporating one forkful of one of these foods per day. Prebiotics are food for bacteria such as fibers found in plant foods like onions, garlic, and asparagus. If you are unable to get enough through your diet, talk with a dietitian or your primary care physician about starting the right probiotic supplement for you. There are many on the market and it is important to find the right strain for your symptoms and to buy high-quality, stable products to ensure the probiotics will actually make it to your gut!
  1. Spending more time outside – Fresh air is so good for us! We spend so much time inside, staring at our computer screens. Try to spend 30 minutes to an hour outside per day. This also will expose your body to beneficial vitamin D from the sun especially in the summer. Going for walks outside is a great way to spend time in nature, reconnect to the present moment, and move your body.

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