How Stress Affects Your Gut
The workings of the mind and gut are so closely intertwined that often, it can be possible to mistake anxiety with gut issues, as often we “feel” emotions in our gut. So just how closely do we experience emotions within our bodies, and is there a way to distinguish one from the other?
Our mind has much more of an influence on our gut and our digestion than we may realise! In fact, many of the normal physiological functions necessary for anything to be digested and absorbed cannot happen when the mind is stressed.
Ever eaten on the go as you rush out the door, stuffing your face with a quick bite, but your mind is in a hundred places at once? You may actually be doing your body more harm than good by giving it food to digest when it’s not prepared to accept it, adding to inflammation and actually overall increasing stress in the body.
This is all linked to our vagus nerve, the master “muscle” that can be pictured as a switch, putting our body into and out of the two dominant states of our nervous system: parasympathetic and sympathetic.
The sympathetic nervous system being in control represents the classic fight and flight, stressed state of mind. You’re stuck in traffic, you’ve just received a stressful text from work, “Where are you?”, you’re running late, or some disaster has happened; maybe the demands of your job are unreasonable and there’s too much expected of you and not enough time. All of these situations cause your adrenaline to escalate, your adrenal glands are firing, your stomach is churning and quite frankly, this stressed state of being has become all too common in our daily lives!
When this state is dominant, our body prioritizes only one thing: making cortisol, the stress hormone, to power us through the stressful event. In prioritizing this one thing, it shuts off all other hormone production, stomach acid production, etc, thinking “do I want to die today, or live for tomorrow?” When faced with such a question, our bodies HAVE to prioritize living for today, so all of the other functions and hormones deemed non-necessary for living for today are put on the back burner, and all we make is stress hormones.
In contrast, when the parasympathetic nervous system is in control, this is when we are able to rest and digest, relax, and smile a little. Please note that this state is the *only* state in which our body is able to digest and thus make stomach juices, make hormones, and do the all necessary detoxification and maintenance necessary for proper functioning. When we put it all in context, our vagus nerve is actually vitally important, and it needs to be able to switch between the two states constantly in order for us to have balance.
Stress is normally a good thing; it is what helps give us the push to get things done (deadlines!), and motivates us. What isn’t so good is when stress becomes a constant, and the not-so-good effects begin to build up. Stress ends up affecting the mind, our behavior, and everything ranging from muscle and headaches to our weight, our mood and mental clarity. When our body gets stuck in the stressed zone and never comes out of it, the tone of our vagus nerve gets depleted and we lose the ability to switch between the two states, getting stuck in a toxic stressed zone.
Have you ever had the irresistible urge to urinate before a stressful event like a performance, only to discover you didn’t really need to go? Have you experienced love or elation in the form of butterflies in your stomach, or do conflicts make you feel nauseous? Chances are you’ve experienced one of these, and it just goes to show how sensitive our digestive tract is to emotions, and we actually feel anxiety and anger, tension and nervousness in our gut! You’re not alone and we all experience this physiological connection to varying degrees.
In fact, studies have shown that stress affects contractions and movement in the GI tract, and people with digestive disorders have been shown to experience pain more intensely because their brains are much more finely attuned to pain signals coming from the gut. In practice, this means that acute stress lowers your pain threshold, changing the way you perceive events. Not only this, but stress actually leads to our gut being more permeable, suppressing our immune function. Stress often works on the GI tract by speeding up its motion, causing things like diarrhea or the urge to urinate when we are nervous, and actually makes complete digestion in the stomach impossible.
So how do we use this knowledge to better understand our bodies and the symptoms we experience on a daily basis?
Begin by turning inward. Are there negative beliefs you have about yourself that drag you down? Perhaps your work environment is too demanding or you feel underappreciated. Often the things that begin outward then turn inward, leading to negative self-talk which really eats into our peace of mind.
Here are 7 practical steps you can take to reduce stress and relieve your gut!
- Practice journaling. As a way to better understand what’s going on inside, catch yourself when you notice ways in which you talk down to yourself, internalizing possible external toxicities. Your body is your only home in this world, and there’s no one going to look out for you if you don’t look out for yourself. Take time out each day to reflect, appreciate, and ground yourself
- Catch negative thoughts. Be on the lookout for negative thoughts about events before they happen or about yourself; practice finding a way to positively look forward to things, staying optimistic and using our thoughts as a “positive spell” to bring into our life that which we wish for! Remember that a lot of anxiety is self induced and if we just catch our thoughts, we can create a much more positive outlook :)
- Breathe. Whenever stress has got you feeling down, just take out some time to focus on your breath. When we are stressed or feeling bad about ourselves, we tend to hold our breath without realizing it. Start by releasing any breath you may have been holding, and with it, flush out any negativity and toxicity. With intention and gratitude for this moment, inhale deeply into your belly, making sure to release any tension in the shoulders. Make sure the breath doesn’t get stuck in your chest as this will be shallow, but allow it deep into the abdomen, releasing any tension in your belly by shaking/wiggling a little bit as you inhale.
- Move. Just moving your body creates a lot of endorphins and feel good hormones. It also gets us out of our heads and into the sensations in our bodies, allowing us to feel present in the moment. Whether intense exercise is your thing (it’s not for me!) find what makes you happy, taking long leisurely walks in the park or dancing to your own favorite mixes.
- Make time for you! Remember that you are the king (or queen) of your own universe so be sure to make time for what you love. Whether that’s learning how to cook or making your own face masks or trying out singing, make yourself feel loved by creating time for whatsoever it is that catches your fancy.
- Relax before meals. Take time to sit in your favorite comfortable position (mine is crossed legged), and picture the food you’re about to indulge in. View it as an indulgence and not a routine, taking care to stimulate the vagus nerve through deep breathing and calming essential oils which stimulate switching into the parasympathetic nervous response. We have made an oil blend specifically for the vagus nerve which is really effective called Calm. It is really effective at reducing toxicity or sluggishness in the vagus nerve, and can be applied behind the ears, and on the shelf adjoining the top of the spine to the base of the skull before meals to really help you get into digest mode! Additionally, inhaling the aromas of our unwind candle can be a great way to set the mood and get the body into the right state of mind!
- Choose your food wisely. Sometimes our “indulgences” are things like sugar or alcohol which actually add to the stress instead of taking it away. Sugary and processed foods tend to increase stress whereas healthy fats, fruits, vegetables, and lean protein help to decrease stress, giving us the building blocks for all of our vital hormones and functions. Choose your foods well, and your body will thank you with feeling better :)