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Stress and Gut Health - What’s The Link?

From the butterflies we feel when we’re nervous, to the way our stomach drops when we have to make a serious decision. The gut-brain connection is no joke! It’s no surprise that stress has a widespread influence on the body as a whole. 

A dysregulated nervous system can wreak havoc on almost every body system, and the gut is one place we experience the effects of stress most acutely. Stress can impact every part of the digestive system, and research now shows us that in the same way our brain impacts our gut health - our gut health influences our brain. This connection is what’s now known as the gut-brain axis, and it describes the two-way communication line between the gut and the brain (and vice versa). The gut-brain axis is connected by the vagus nerve, one of the biggest nerves that connects the brain to the digestive system. The vagus nerve is the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the state of our nervous system responsible for all things ‘rest and digest’. The vagus nerve supports many crucial functions within the body including our mood, immune system, heart rate and digestion. 

Our gut and brain are also connected by neurotransmitters, those important chemicals that support our mood and other cyclical changes within the body. In fact, our gut is where the majority of our serotonin is produced, and our gut microbes play a role in producing GABA, our calming neurotransmitter. Studies now show that specific probiotic strains can actually support anxiety and other mental health conditions, which only highlights just how much of an influence our gut has on our mood and how we feel. 

Fight or Flight

In a state of stress or what’s commonly known as ‘fight or flight’, the parasympathetic nervous system effectively shuts off. This means that all body functions related to ‘rest and digest’ are slowed, and our sympathetic nervous system takes over. The ‘fight or flight’ response increases our heart rate, sends blood to our muscles and prioritizes those acute body functions required for our survival. When we’re in a sympathetic state, any other functions that are not so immediate are slowed - like our digestion. Even though we may not be in acute danger, in a state of stress our body can’t discern between an immediate threat to our survival and a perceived stressor, like traffic or a work deadline. 

Inflammation and leaky gut

The gut-brain axis is also connected via the immune system, which is responsible for our inflammatory response. Stress and our fight or flight response alarms the immune system, and if our immune system is switched on for too long (which happens when we’re chronically stressed), it can lead to inflammation. When we have a significant amount of gut inflammation, our digestive tract can become more permeable, causing what’s known as leaky gut. 

Leaky gut occurs when the gap junctions in the intestinal walls become more permeable, allowing harmful bacteria and toxins to pass through to the bloodstream. This can cause widespread inflammation that not only impacts our digestive health, but you guessed it - our mood!

Reducing stress and supporting your gut health 

Reduce your inflammatory load

Inflammation is a huge stress on the body (and stress itself causes inflammation!). Reducing inflammatory/processed foods, avoiding alcohol, getting enough sleep and managing your stress will all aid in reducing inflammation. 

Belly breathing 

The quickest way to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system is by taking long, slow breaths. When we’re stressed, we tend to take short, sharp breaths, and we use our chest instead of our belly. By consciously breathing through our stomach, we register to the nervous system that we’re not in any danger and that it’s safe to continue normal body functions - like digestion! Start by taking a few minutes each day to rest a hand on your belly and stay present with your breath. 

Eat mindfully

Digestion begins in the mouth! Eating on the go or not chewing your food properly can lead to poor digestion from the get-go. We need to give our digestive system time to produce stomach acid and digestive enzymes, which breaks down our food and encourages a smooth transit. 

Zinc

We need zinc to produce enough stomach acid! Zinc also supports the integrity of the gut lining, maintains brain health and cognitive function and aids our immune system. Pumpkin seeds are one of the richest plant-based sources of zinc, other sources include oysters and red meat. 

Support the gut lining

To repair the gut and nourish the gut lining, you’ll want to increase those gut healing foods like bone broth to help heal and seal the gut. Bone broth is rich in essential amino acids like glutamine, glycine and proline that aid in healing the digestive tract and reducing inflammation. It’s also rich in collagen, which improves the structural integrity of the gut.

Check out our most recent blog post here to learn more about the importance of gut health, and how it impacts our skin!

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