How Stress Affects Gut Health

The gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to emotion. Anger, anxiety, sadness, elation - all of these feelings (and others) can trigger symptoms in the gut. The Canadian Digestive Health Foundation states that over 20 million Canadians suffer from some kind of digestive dysfunction. Do you know what else plagues us? Toxic levels of stress. Stress over the pandemic, work deadlines, careers, money, an utter lack of sleep, being constantly connected and ‘on’ and unable to rest.

We see clients in our one-on-one consultations with digestive concerns who attribute most of their symptoms to food choices. And make no mistake, food can transform your digestive system for better or for worse. But stress is a very strong predictor of symptoms too, and a stressful event can lead to symptoms that you are more likely to misattribute to what you just ate than what
you just thought leading to unnecessary food restriction. 

The gut and the brain have an intimate connection through the nervous system. The gut is heavily enervated – in fact, there are more nerve cells (neurons) in your gut-based (enteric) nervous
system than in your spinal cord! The gut-brain connection goes two ways. It’s why we get ‘butterflies in our stomach’ when we’re nervous. Stress affects the gut – but the gut can also affect our stress response and moods. In fact, it is thought that about 90% of gut-brain communication is going from the gut to the brain. It creates a vicious cycle that can make you feel pretty crummy until you get a handle on it.

These are just some of the ways that stress affects your gut:
• Stress can alter the rate at which your gut moves, either too fast or too slow
• Stress can initiate a flare of ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease
• Stress can initiate painful spasms in IBS
• Stress can intensify perceptions of pain
• Stress can make reflux or ulcer symptoms feel worse
• It can make you more hungry – particularly for comfort foods like chips or ice cream – or it can destroy your appetite, making it hard to get the nutrients you need.

How does this happen? Well, stress can augment neurotransmitter production in your gut. Your gut-based nervous system is responsible for the majority of serotonin production in your body – and this serotonin is important for regulating gut movement. Stress can also cause muscles to tense... and your gut is surrounded by multiple layers of smooth muscles that generate movement. Now, if this happens for a day or two every once in a while, it’s really no big deal. But what if this is your everyday? 

You’re going to need some real solutions to minimize how stress affects your gut. Understanding how the digestive system works, identifying stress triggers, and making targeted nutrition and lifestyle modifications can make a world of difference. Don't ignore these symptoms! Let our nutrition coaches help you identify triggers, develop a healthier eating plan, and achieve long-term relief. 

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