Stress – it’s the most common mental health issue of our time. According to UK government research, a whopping 44% of British adults have been diagnosed with symptoms like depression and anxiety because of work-related stress alone in the last two years (1). It is, unfortunately, a staple of our everyday lives – however, it’s important to understand how to deal with stress in order to manage the domino effect on our health and wellbeing, and not be stuck in a vicious stress cycle on repeat. Stress can become a learned habit, after all.
Now, not all stress is bad. Sometimes it can be just the boost we need to improve our performance or to get us to push ourselves to do things that scare us and face our fears. However, the problem lies with chronic stress – when you continuously find yourself in a stress storm, it gets harder and harder to see the light.
It’s probably no surprise to know then, that stress is also a major trigger of digestive issues like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Many people live, often without realizing it, in a state of constant low-level stress, going full steam ahead, trying to fit in a yoga session here or a park run there, in order to feel a bit more of a work/life balance. The thing is, while regular exercise and mindfulness practice can help you de-stress in the long run, many people who feel the pressure to be ‘on’ all the time find it difficult to fully switch off. Your digestion can be an early warning sign if something doesn’t quite add up.
Let’s first take a look at what happens to the body when you’re stressed and how this can cause digestive flare ups. The following article shares some tips for managing stress triggers.
What happens to your body when you’re stressed
While our bodies and brains have evolved over millennia, there are parts of our brains that are still very much as they were back in caveman and woman times. Meaning, we don’t need to consciously think about keeping our heart pumping, our legs moving and to digest our food. Our brain and body take care of all this, most particularly via our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).
The ANS contains 3 key elements:
1. Sympathetic nervous system – otherwise known as our ‘fight or flight’ system
2. Parasympathetic nervous system – responsible for the opposite state, aka our ‘rest and digest’ state
3. Enteric nervous system – the so-called ‘second brain’ that is A web of neurons in the lining of our gastrointestinal system
Our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system are complementary. And while they keep us alive and allow us to react to experiences efficiently, a lot of these reactions are fairly instant and unconscious. We therefore have to work a little to reset some of our less helpful responses.
The 3 brains: behaviours and responsibilities
The oldest part of our brain, our reptilian brain, governs strong and instant reactions around some of our most basic instincts like eating, reproducing, fleeing or fighting. It’s the part of us that’s always on the lookout for danger – prompting that ‘fight or flight’ response when a dangerous animal might be coming at you back in the caveman days, for example.
However there’s a second layer of our brain which governs our emotional responses as messages are passed to our brains via our senses; this is the second oldest section of our brain – our limbic or mammalian brain (2). This area is our emotional ‘control centre’.
An area of this part of the brain called the amygdala, which contributes to the emotional processing of situations, detects the perceived danger and sends a signal to another area of the limbic brain, the hypothalamus. This sends a signal of stress via the ANS to our adrenal glands, which sit just above our kidneys, that we need some adrenaline to get our heart pumping faster and kicking us into a ‘fight or flight’ state (3).
After this initial adrenaline surge (this all happens very quickly of course!), if we still detect danger, we get further signals to our adrenal glands to release cortisol. Our body is kept in a high state of alert with all the associated physiological ‘fight or flight’ responses.
What are these responses? Our heart rate increases, our breath becomes more rapid, pupils dilate for greater focus and our sweat glands are stimulated (to help prevent injury if attacked). This also inhibits secretions in the digestive system as when you’re running away from a wild animal, digesting food isn’t any essential function! This process can also reduce the blood flow in the ‘thinking’ part of your brain, helping you react more quickly.
In today’s world however, this animalistic instinct can cause problems. Everyday stressors like work deadlines, social anxiety, financial worries and medical scares for example, can trigger the same responses. Another area of our limbic brain, the hippocampus, then learns this stress response for future situations. It’s easy to see how stress can embed itself in cognitive behaviour and wreak havoc on your modern life.
How stress affects your gut
As we now know, one of the many physiological responses of our body being in ‘fight or flight’ mode is our digestive system getting downgraded as a secondary process for survival. It therefore makes sense that if you’re living in a constant stressed state, your digestion is going to be challenged.
Now, the link between your gut and stress is a little more complicated than just what’s going on outside your body, as the brain-gut connection goes both ways.
The third part of our Central Nervous System, the enteric nervous system, is located in our gut and sends signals back up the vagus nerve to your brain. If you have an ‘unhappy’ gut, your brain will receive signals that things aren’t going so well down there and react accordingly. This also includes the influence of your gut microbiome and the balance of bacteria that keeps the gut working well (or not!). In fact, improving gut bacteria has even been linked with lower cortisol levels (4).
The good news is that there are a number of ways in which you can start to manage stress, which is really beneficial if you suffer from IBS. A great start is listening to your gut when it’s telling you it’s not happy – but stay tuned for part two and some tips for getting on top of, and even embracing, stress. Please note that it’s important that you don’t self-diagnose IBS. If you suspect you have IBS or another digestive issue, you should speak with your healthcare provider to ensure you have a proper medical diagnosis. There are a number of conditions with similar symptoms and you will then be given correct guidance for managing your specific symptoms.
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1. HSE.GOV: https://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress/
2. ScienceDirect: https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/autonomic-nervous-system
3. Dartmouth Edu: https://www.dartmouth.edu/~humananatomy/part_1/chapter_3.html
4. Kristin Schmidt, et al. Prebiotic intake reduces the waking cortisol response and alters emotional bias in healthy volunteers. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2015; 232(10): 1793–1801.