How Stress Affects Gut Health

The food you eat is not the only thing that affects your digestive system. Stress is another major factor. Unfortunately, the part of our brain that responds to potential danger can’t tell the difference between a physically harmful threat or an agitating, emotional circumstance.

Therefore, any stressful situation can trigger a fight or flight response. Once the brain detects any form of perceived threat, it releases stress hormones which go straight to your gut.

This sets off a complex sequence of events in the body. The main goal is to channel resources to body functions that enhance our ability to physically respond to a threat, such as fighting or running.

This means shutting down or reducing activity in functions that usually consume high amounts of energy, but occur automatically in the background. One of these functions is the digestive process. When a stress response is triggered, the digestive process is severely disrupted.

To facilitate this, the sensory nerves respond by adjusting acid secretion. As a result, the process of digestion, as well as appetite can shut down. This can result in a stomach ache or painful gastrointestinal distress.

Since the gut is an integral part of the entire nervous system, the brain in turn affects gut functioning. So, although it starts with the brain, stress can impact the physiological functions of a person’s gut.

There is plenty of evidence to show that our gut is vulnerable to the effects of both acute (immediate) and chronic (long-term) stress. It certainly makes perfect sense, as both our physical and mental health is often, and usually, affected by too much stress!

Some of the main changes that stress can inflict in the gut is made possible through actions relating to the intestinal mucosa. It can be penetrated by a network of neuron cell bodies and fibers that are influenced by the signals released from the brain.


Stress Increases Risk of Gut Permeability

The changes that take place in the body in times of stress can have an immediate effect on gut function. This is due to a group of peptides known as Corticotrophin Releasing Factors – CRF – which play a role in the coordination of the body’s response to stress. The effects of these CRFs have been found by experts to increase gut permeability and visceral hypersensitivity.


Stress Increases Risk of Intestinal Diseases

Studies have shown that stress can significantly lead to some changes of the digestive microbiota composition. Laboratory research demonstrates the link between stress and the overgrowth of bacteria in the gut, and how such changes can reduce microbial diversity inside the large intestine.

These adverse changes in the microbiota may increase a person’s risk of being affected by enteric pathogens which are groups of bacteria that can cause disease in the intestines.


Stress Slows Down Movement in the Small Intestine

Experimental studies have also demonstrated that psychological stress can slow down the transit time in the small intestines resulting in the overgrowth of bad bacteria. This occurrence can then compromise the intestinal barrier.

Simply put, chronic stress can significantly contribute to the emergence of leaky gut syndrome and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth.

Because our digestive system is the engine that drives us, any problems with our gut function will not be contained there. Other body systems will be affected, often in ways that make it difficult to isolate the real cause of the problem. One common area is the skin.

As stress-induced changes in the microbial flora increases the possibility of intestinal permeability, so too can the risk of systemic and local skin inflammation. If the integrity of the gut is compromised an individual may experience skin inflammations, such as acne and rosacea.


Maintaining Healthy Gut Flora Buffers the Effects of Stress

Having a healthy gut flora makes it easier to modulate leaky gut permeability and hypersensitivity, which may occur as a result of being chronically exposed to stress. In order to achieve healthy gut flora make sure you include plenty of probiotic foods in your diet.

An increased intake of fermentable fibers such as yam, sweet potato and yucca can also help keep the gut flora within healthy levels. Most of all, find ways to better manage your stress levels in order to avoid gut and digestive health problems, and other health problems too!

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