Ah, stress, everyone’s favorite topic. I know we’re tired of hearing about how stressed everyone is, but stay with me for a minute. Because stress is such a part of everyone’s lives, we often fail to acknowledge just how much stress we are under—and how that affects us both mentally and physically. The past year has been particularly stressful for most of us. According to a poll conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA), nearly 8 in 10 adults report that the coronavirus pandemic is a “significant source of stress in their lives.” That means a majority of the people walking past you down the street are experiencing heightened levels of stress. And that is no small matter.
Something important to remember when we’re talking about stress is that our bodies process emotional stress and physical stress in the same way. This really comes into play when we talk about stress and gut health, because of the brain-gut connection. Gut health and brain health go hand in hand, and each one affects the other.
What Stress Does to Your Gut
So, what happens to your gut when you get stressed out? Here’s the abbreviated version.
When your brain experiences stress—whether it’s work-related, family-related, pandemic-related, or just that judgy internal voice in your head causing you to relive your worst moments of the week—it sends a signal to your gut: we’re in danger.
Under stress, your brain also signals your adrenal glands to release hormones. Those hormones then recruit all available reserves in your system to raise your blood glucose (this is what helps your body respond in fight-or-flight mode).
When your body enters this state of stress, it’s not in an optimal state to digest food. Thus, when you eat while stressed, your body doesn’t absorb nutrients like it should.
Stress signals to your body that you need energy-dense foods, which is why you might find yourself craving carbs and fats when you’re stressed. Remember that your body is responding to a threat. Whether it’s perceived or real, the response is the same. You might not need to run or fight for your life, but your body will still crave the foods that would help you do that. Unfortunately, the foods we usually reach for when we’re stressed are those that are heavily processed and low in nutrients, which can then create more stress in our gut.
The combination of your gut struggling to digest food under stress, and your natural craving for high-carb, high-fat foods when you’re feeling stressed, can really do a number on your physical and mental health.
Your stressed body’s struggle to digest foods can lead to a host of gut issues, like irritable bowel syndrome, heartburn, indigestion and acid reflux.
Because the communication between your gut and brain goes both ways, these gut problems can cause issues with your mood and mental health. An unhealthy gut can contribute to anxiety, depression, fatigue, difficulty focusing, energy dysregulation, and irregular sleep.
Managing Stress to Improve Your Gut Health
So, what can you do? You can’t always avoid stress altogether. There will always be situations, relationships and uncontrollables that create stress in your life. When these stressors arise, it’s important to acknowledge them, and to focus on adding practices into your day that reduce your overall stress. This might look like a mindfulness practice, journaling, meditation, exercise, or other self-care practice. The more you are able to recognize the presence of stress in your life and take action to mitigate it, the healthier you will be in mind and body.
If you’d like to learn more personalized strategies for reducing your stress and improving your gut health, I’d love to help. You can book a free consultation with me here.
The content found on Integrative Counseling and Nutrition Consulting platform is not intended to be a substitute for professional therapeutic advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your psychiatrist, therapist or other qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding a mental health condition.