What Happens to your gut when your stress-o-meter goes haywire
If you’ve ever experienced pre-interview jitters, butterflies before going on stage or when your boss reams you for a bad presentation or hunger pangs after hearing rumours about possible layoffs at work, you’ve felt the impact that stress has on your digestive system.
Since stress is an unavoidable reality of modern life, the best option is to understand why it can significantly impact the way your gut reacts and how you put a stop to it.
The best way to stop the stress/gut vicious cycle is to learn to ditch stress as well as get your gut back on track by following the 5-R protocol: Remove, Replace, Repopulate, Repair, Rebalance
My take is that if you understand the body’s stress response, you will be better equipped to cope with such situation. So, next time you realise that you are becoming tense, you can look at ways to relieve stress, relax and calm your body down.
Buckle in for some science: The gut-brain axis is a term that describes the bio directional communication between your gut and brain. These signals sent in both directions are controlled by the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is a long cranial nerve that helps to regulate the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the ‘rest and digest’ system, which is responsible for bodily functions such as regulating your heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, lungs’ function, inflammation and even speaking. When experiencing acute and/or chronic stress, it is the sympathetic nervous system that takes control and prepares your body for the fight or flight response. This activation triggers the release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline as well as inflammatory molecules that reduce the function of the vagus nerve.
The problem is that the more often the fight-or-flight response is triggered, the easier it is to be activated again. It will take less to activate it and the response will likely be more forceful. This is hardly surprising. Remember the last time when you were already stressed and then the smallest thing happened and you lost it. Thankfully there are many ways to stop your stress response to work its socks off and get back to a state of calm such as learning to live in the moment rather than caught up in your thoughts and feelings, exercising to calm the nervous system and release the feel good hormones, using breathing techniques, yoga and meditation to trigger the relaxation response, spending time with your loved ones and laughing with them to increase your endorphins etc.
Since our ‘happy’ neurotransmitters are mainly produced in the gut, disrupting its ability to communicate with the brain is not a good idea and could contribute to your stress and anxiety!
On top of that, chronic stress can directly alter the composition of your microbiome in favour of harmful bacteria. This overgrowth of bad microbes can in turn disrupt many bodily functions such as reducing digestive enzymes’ activity, increasing appetite and compromising gut motility.
The fix: Follow the 5-R protocol
The 5-R protocol developed by the institute of Functional Medicine is the approach I use to heal the gut, promote the function of the gut-brain axis and improve mental health. This method requires 5 steps: Remove, Replace, Repopulate, Repair and Rebalance.
Remove: This first step consists of removing anything that could be irritating your gut such as, foods (alcohol, caffeine, processed foods, sugars, food additives, common allergens such as gluten and dairy), medications such as NSAIDs or antacids that are known to disrupt digestive functions, infection or stress that can lead to gut inflammation.
Replace + Re-populate: These next two steps are where you turn to your supplement cabinet. Depending on your symptoms, you may be lacking digestive enzymes and/or stomach acid for proper digestion or be deficient in specific nutrients and need supplements to address these imbalances. To help re-populate the microbiome, I also often recommend taking a high quality source probiotic with a minimum of 25 billion CFUs and introduce foods high in probiotics such as fermented foods (yoghurt, kefir, kombucha, kimchi etc.) and prebiotic foods that feed your beneficial bacteria such as onions, garlic, leeks, apples, bananas, asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes etc.
Repair + Rebalance: The last two steps are all about creating a healthy gut environment by eating a wholefoods, anti-inflammatory, high fibre diet the contains plenty of vitamin A, C, D, E as well as zinc and supplements to heal the gut lining such as L-glutamine, collagen, slippery elm, aloe vera, marshmallow It is also important that you look at lifestyle factors that have a big influence on your stress level such as lack of sleep, dehydration, activity level and exercise, smoking, alcohol and other drugs, abuse etc.