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Your Stomach in Knots: How Stress Affects Gut Health

October 31, 2017

Your Stomach in Knots: How Stress Affects Gut HealthAccording to a 2017 survey by Stress In America, 24% of adults reported extreme stress while more than one-third stated their stress increased over the past year. – American Psychological Association

It is no secret that stress has become a normal part of life in this 21st century. However, what is not readily known is how much that stress is affecting your gut health. From physical damage of your digestive function to psychological warfare between your brain and gut, your stress load plays a big part in your gut and overall health.

Know Your Inside Tract

The digestive tract is one long tube – from mouth to anus – accessorized by some key organs like your liver, gallbladder and pancreas. Each stop along the way is an important part of your food’s journey, so dysfunction at any point reduces your ability to properly digest and absorb key nutrients, or prevents the elimination of waste and toxins. To better understand dysfunction, you first have to understand optimal function of your digestive system.

Starting with your first bite, your mouth’s job is to mechanically breakdown and liquefy foods as well as initiate the chemical breakdown of carbohydrates and, to a lesser extent, fats. Healthy teeth, tongue and salivary glands mean a healthy mouth. The esophagus has a very simple task – transport food to your stomach. But to prevent food from going in the wrong direction, there is an upper esophageal sphincter (UES) near the trachea and lower esophageal sphincter (LES) that connects to the stomach. A healthy esophagus means healthy downward movement and strong sphincters.

Entering the stomach, your food finally starts its first real breakdown. Gastric juices – including hydrochloric acid (HCl), pepsinogen and lipase – help breakdown proteins and fats as well as kill microbes. Another substance produced in the stomach, intrinsic factor, is required for your body to absorb vitamin B12. Finally, the hormone gastrin helps to regulate your appetite by making you feel satiated when you’ve had enough. Any damage to the stomach lining can lead to ulcers or reduce your ability to create gastric juices. This increases your potential for nutrient deficiencies, illness from food borne pathogens and unregulated appetite.

Once your food, now called chyme, enters your small intestine, this is where things get interesting! The small intestine has some very big jobs. It is the location where you complete digestion, or the breakdown, of your food into individual amino acids, lipids, saccharides, vitamins and minerals. The small intestine is also responsible for passing nutrients into the bloodstream and preventing absorption of unwanted foreign substances. The cells of the intestinal lining are held together by tight junctions that, when healthy, permit only tiny substances through, like amino acids and vitamins. These tight junctions also prevent larger substances, such as undigested food particles and bacteria, from getting into the bloodstream.

The small intestine is 15-20 feet long and covered in microvilli, tiny fingerlike projections, which give it a surface area the size of a tennis court! The health of your entire small intestine is critical to optimal health not only because damage can lead to intestinal permeability, but also because different nutrients are absorbed at different areas along your intestine. The small intestine is divided into three parts:

The duodenum connects the small intestine to the stomach and absorbs calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc, copper, manganese, vitamins B1, B2 and B6, folate, vitamin C, monosaccharides, fat, and fat soluble vitamins A, D and E.

  • The jejunum is the middle part and absorbs thiamine, pyridoxine, riboflavin, folic acid, disaccharides, proteins and amino acids.
  • The ileum is the final section connecting to the large intestine and absorbs cholesterol, vitamin B12 and bile salts.
  • Damage anywhere along the small intestine can lead to nutrient deficiencies, leaky gut syndrome, food allergies, inflammation, autoimmune diseases and more.

Absorption of nutrients also takes place in the large intestine. Before the end of the road, the large intestine absorbs potassium, water, sodium chloride, vitamin K and short chain fatty acids. The large intestine is also home to most of your microbiome – commensal and probiotic bacteria. These little bugs are beneficial and necessary. Probiotic bacteria manufacture nutrients your body uses, balance intestinal pH, protect you from toxic substances, reduce intestinal inflammation, normalize cholesterol and triglycerides, regulate bowel movements and much, much more. A healthy large intestine and microbiome optimize your wellbeing in so many ways.

Your accessories are important too! The pancreas produces digestive enzymes to assist the small intestine with the final breakdown of carbohydrates, proteins and fats into saccharides, amino acids and lipids. The pancreas also helps regulate your blood sugar. Your liver performs over 500 functions in the body, including regulating cholesterol production, metabolizing the macronutrients into usable forms, storing many nutrients and producing bile to assist with the emulsification of fats. Your gallbladder acts as a reserve for excess bile waiting to release it when necessary, such as after a fatty meal.

So damage and dysfunction anywhere along your digestive tract means improper breakdown of food, increased risk for food borne pathogens, decreased absorption and utilization of nutrients, excess storage of toxins in the body, leaky gut syndrome and compromised health.

You’ve Got Some Nerve
Considering your digestive tract as just a tube where food goes in and out of is a bit simplistic, especially considering your gut’s intimate relationship with your brain. This relationship starts with nerves. Your entire digestive system has its own separate nervous system running through it. It is called the Enteric Nervous System (ENS) and it controls muscle stimulation and production of secretions such as neuropeptides, neurotransmitters and nitric oxide. What you may not know is that roughly 90% of the neurotransmitter serotonin is actually produced in your digestive tract!

The ENS is a completely separate nervous system creating a direct link between the digestive system and your brain through a nerve called the vagus nerve. In fact, if the vagus nerve is cut the digestive system will still function! There are hundreds of millions of neurons connecting the brain to the ENS and communication goes both ways. So the brain provides feedback to the gut and the gut provides feedback to the brain. This connection:

  • Controls hunger and satiety through the release of different hormones.
  • Initiates digestion through the “cephalic phase of digestion.” This is when your brain registers the sight, smell, taste and texture of your food in order to send signals to your stomach to start secreting gastric juices.
  • Creates “gut” feelings and “butterflies” in your stomach. That feeling in the pit of your stomach is real when you’re nervous or feel that something just isn’t right!
  • Regulates parasympathetic nervous system activation. This part of your autonomic nervous system, aptly called “rest and digest,” helps calm you and promotes all aspects of the digestive process.

Your Body on Stress
As you can see, activating your “rest and digest” system is critical to optimal digestive function and this is the main reason why stress negatively affects digestion and gut health. You have heard of “fight or flight” and now you know about “rest and digest.” However, they cannot work simultaneously. If you are in fight or flight mode, you cannot also be resting and digesting. Therefore, when you are stressed your entire digestive process comes to a halt.

Of course, with our fast-paced lifestyles, it’s nearly impossible to feel like you don’t have any stress. But, having stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Instead, it is how your body adapts to stress that dictates how it can affect your body and your gut health. When you are exposed to a stressor, your body responds physiologically. This response is called the General Adaptation Syndrome and has three phases:

The first phase is the Alarm Phase, typically known as the fight or flight response, lasting for a short duration. During the alarm phase, you perceive a stress or threat and the body kicks into action – time to run from that tiger! Heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, rate of breathing and sweating all increase while digestion and reproductive function decrease. This reaction occurs for any perceived stress – running from a bear, fighting with your spouse, getting stuck in traffic, even negative thoughts about yourself.

The next phase is the Resistance Phase which allows your body to keep fighting that stressor long after the initial stress is gone. After the perceived threat is gone, your body is still processing it. In the resistance phase, your body produces cortisol and other corticosteroids to help convert proteins into energy and retain sodium to keep blood pressure up. This helps you continue to handle emotional crises, fight infections or perform strenuous tasks. Eventually as the threat dissipates, your body returns to baseline.

Baseline, or homeostasis, is when the body is humming along smoothly, feeling healthy and having energy. So, of course, the body wants to maintain this optimal state of health. Stress throws you off balance, and it is your stress-response that gets you back to equilibrium. So having a stress response is a good thing! The problem arises when your stressors – including your perception of those stressors – never allows your body to get back to baseline.

This can lead to the final phase, the Exhaustion Phase. It takes frequent and/or prolonged stressful events to enter this phase. But, if your body does reach exhaustion, it leads to organ damage and severely compromised health.

Each time you handle a stressor, it gets added to your current stress load. The higher your stress load, whether you perceive it or not, the more your health is affected.

When it comes to gut health, stress can both indirectly and directly affect your digestive system. Stress indirectly affects your gut health by increasing inflammation throughout the body which can eventually damage the gut lining and your accessory organs. Stress also creates a direct snowball effect on your digestive system. The intercommunication between your brain and gut controls how fast or slow food moves through your digestive tract and controls the production of the protective mucus layer along the gut lining. Stress compromises that communication which creates constipation, diarrhea or IBS, and a thinner protective layer. This leads to malabsorption of nutrients, increased toxin load and a leaky gut. Additionally, healthy movement through your digestive system and the integrity of your gut lining are critical for your microbiome. So if both are compromised the number of good or commensal bacteria in your system decreases and allows the bad bugs to thrive. This creates a state of dysbiosis which decreases nutrient absorption, increases intestinal inflammation, reduces elimination of toxins and compromises immunity. At this point your gut and overall health has been compromised.

The following is a long list of consequences that have been shown to be caused from living a prolonged, stressed out life:

– High cholesterol
– Insulin resistance, Metabolic Syndrome and Diabetes
– Increased risk of heart disease
– Reduced ability to burn calories and build muscle
– Increased ability to store fat
– Salt retention and bloating
– Hormone dysfunction
– Erectile dysfunction and inability to conceive
– Increased risk of infection and disease
– Impaired kidney function
– Insomnia
– Depression
– Increased signs of aging
– Inflammation and oxidative stress
– Impaired memory
– Heartburn and risk of ulcers
– Impaired digestion
– Gut dysbiosis
– Nutrient deficiencies
– Food sensitivities and allergies

What’s Got You Stressed?
There are several types of stressors to the body, including nutrition and psychological stressors.

  • Poor diet & Toxic foods. Artificial ingredients, processed foods, pesticides, conventional meats, sugars, and trans fats increase your toxin load and lack nutrients which creates stress on the gut and detoxification pathways.
  • Eating too fast. Inhaling your food skips the first phase of digestion, the cephalic phase. If you rush through this phase, foods cannot properly breakdown, stressing your stomach and pancreas to catch up with digestion and stressing the body by reducing absorption of nutrients.
  • Food allergies. Consuming foods you have an immediate or delayed immune reaction to can create inflammation and stress on the body.
  • Toxic beliefs about yourself. Beating yourself up and depriving yourself as punishment are also forms of stress on the mind and body.
  • Full-plate syndrome. Continuously piling responsibilities onto your plate creates a tremendous amount of stress on the body.
  • Toxic exposure. Heavy metals, industrial pollutants, plastics, formaldehyde, and nonstick cookware also increase your toxin load and stress on your detoxification pathways.
  • Uncontrolled blood sugar. Chronic insulin spikes stress your pancreas and liver as well as create inflammation and stress on your entire body.
  • Overtraining. Avoiding adequate rest and recovery between your exercise routines puts physical stress on your body.
  • Sleep Deprivation. If you have difficulty getting quality sleep it imbalances your natural cortisol levels which stresses your adrenal glands and nervous system.
  • Injury or Illness. Cuts and flus also creates a tremendous amount of stress on your immune system and other body systems.

All of these accumulated stressors, how you perceive those stressors and how you try to manage your stressors will dictate your stress load. So how do you reduce your stress in this crazy world we live in?

Destress Your Body
You can never completely eliminate stress, but you can reduce its effects on your body. Here are some tips on how to start reducing stress.

  • Eat slowly and mindfully to enhance digestion and reduce stress.
  • Smell the roses. Slowing down, thinking positively and practicing stress management techniques like meditation reduces inflammation and improves gut and brain health.
  • Exercise, with adequate recovery, helps release feel-good chemicals and aids digestion.
  • Create a sleep ritual to calm you before bed and enhance sleep quantity and quality.
  • Read labels to understand what potential toxic ingredients are hiding in your favorite foods.
  • Eliminate processed foods, sugars, trans fats and artificial ingredients. Removing these foods from your meal plan will greatly reduce your toxin load and stress on the body.
  • Focus on quality whole foods such as organic fruits and vegetables, free-range and organic lean meats, whole unrefined grains, raw nuts and seeds as well as cold-pressed and unrefined oils. These provide necessary nutrients for gut and brain health, help regulate blood sugar, and reduce inflammation and stress on the body.
  • Consume Fermented Foods such as kefir, kimchi and kombucha to help rebalance your microbiome.
  • Determine if you have any potential food allergens. Hidden food allergies can increase systemic inflammation and compromise gut and brain health. Consider an elimination diet to see if you have an allergy or intolerance to one or more of the six common food allergens – gluten, dairy, corn, soy, eggs and peanuts.
  • Consider a safe liver detox, such as The 21-Day Holistic Detox. This program is meant to help you remove stored toxins, eliminate potential food allergens, reduce inflammation and improve gut, brain and overall health.
  • Consider basic supplementation such as a high quality multivitamin, omega 3’s and probiotics.
  • Consider antioxidant supplements such as vitamins A, C, D, E and K; as well as alpha lipoic acid. These will help reduce inflammation and stress on the body.
  • Consider targeted supplementation, such as adaptogen herbs or cortisol-modulating supplements, based on your symptoms and goals. Of course, always check with your doctor before adding any of these supplements to your current regime.

Incorporating some or all of these tips into your life can turn the tides to a healthier and happier gut, brain and life!

Stephanie Walsh, CPT, CNTP, CEPC is a Certified Nutrition Therapy Practitioner, Certified Eating Psychology Coach and Certified Personal Trainer. Contact Stephanie at (207) 730-2208 or email her:

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