stress and gut-brain axis

How Does Stress Affect the Gut-Brain Axis?

Recent research supports the importance of digestion and gut health. One particular aspect of gut health scientists researched is the microbiota-gut-brain axis.

Gut microbiota, formerly known as gut flora, is important in our overall health. It plays a key role in immune system function, digestion, gene expression, and regulates mood. The vagus nerve, which connects the gut and brain, creates the gut-brain axis. It works closely with gut flora and maintaining optimal health.

Many chronic conditions show links between imbalanced gut flora and an impaired gut-brain axis. These conditions include depression, heart disease, cancer, and autoimmune diseases.

One major factor that affects the gut-brain axis is stress. In this article, we’ll explore how stress affects our gut health and other parts of the body.

Emotional and Physical Health

There is ongoing research exploring the link between emotions and physical health. You’ve probably heard about the mind-body connection. But how does the mind influence the body’s immune system and major organs?

Stress literally creates physical inflammation and other challenges in the body. In particular, stress affects the following parts of our body:

  • Gut health
  • Gut-brain axis
  • Nervous system
  • Endocrine glands
  • Immune system

As part of maintaining gut health and our overall wellbeing, we must manage our stress and emotions.

stress and gut-brain axis - man stressed in front of computer

Effects of Stress on the Gut-Brain Axis

Both short-term and long-term stress affects the function of the digestive tract. According to research, exposure to stress alters the gut-brain axis. This stress can result in:

Stress impacts gut function in several ways. These can further contribute to impairments along the gut-brain axis.

Digestion Issues

Stress alters normal intestinal motility. This translates to changes in bowel movements, such as diarrhea or constipation. It also contributes to poor digestion.

Increased Pain Sensitivity

Stress can make a person more sensitive to pain. This has a negative impact on the production of stomach acid and digestive enzymes.

Leaky Gut

Stress increases intestinal permeability causing a “leaky gut.” The tight junctions in the gut control what passes through the wall of the small intestine. In a leaky gut, these junctions don’t work properly. As a result, foreign substances and toxins leak into the blood.
Symptoms of a leaky gut include:

Leaky gut also appears to precede autoimmunity.

Blood Flow

Stress has a negative effect on our blood flow. Blood flow is important because it supports digestive organs. It also aids in the digestive tract’s ability to repair and regenerate.

Gut Dysbiosis

Stress also has a negative impact on the gut microbiota, causing gut dysbiosis. This can lead to symptoms such as fatigue, psoriasis, and bloating.

Managing Digestive Symptoms

Symptoms of imbalanced gut health and an impaired gut-brain axis can be uncomfortable. There are standard therapies that aim to manage digestive symptoms.

However, there are two supplements that seem to modulate the gut-brain axis well. These supplements are melatonin and probiotics.

Impact of Stress on Other Organs and Systems

A few decades ago, researchers discovered a new system called psychoneuroimmunology (PNI). PNI connects the psyche to the nervous and immune systems. Later on, researchers added the digestive system and hormones to these chain reactions. These are all connected with triggered emotional stress.

To put it simply, emotional stress causes increased cytokines, inflammatory molecules. We see this excess inflammation in the brain, gut, and throughout the body. It is chronic, low-grade inflammation.

Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, also known as the “fight or flight” reaction. Shutting down the parasympathetic nervous system activates digestion. Stress affects hormones, creating high cortisol, abnormal insulin, thyroid, and sex hormone levels.

Stress also makes us breathe faster and shallower while increasing heart rate and blood pressure. It also worsens neurological conditions like depression, Parkinson’s, and ADHD. We are also at increased risk of infections.

It also suppresses the immune system, causes hormonal imbalances, and damages cells’ DNA. This could contribute to the development of cancer.

The effects of stress on our overall well-being are clear. Stress promotes weight gain and a sedentary lifestyle. It also can create unhealthy habits such as drinking and smoking. Stress also accelerates the aging process and shortens lifespan. Being under heavy stress may shorten life expectancy by as much as 2.8 years, according to one study.

stress and gut-brain axis - woman stretching in nature to manage stress

Managing Stress for a Healthy Gut-Brain Axis

Emotional stress is a huge risk factor for many conditions beyond impairment of the gut-brain axis. Make it a priority to reduce stress in your life and implement strategies today. Some stress-reducing strategies include:

  • Yoga
  • Psychotherapy
  • Mindfulness
  • Meditation
  • Deep breathing

It’s also important to identify stress triggers. It could be toxic relationships, job-related stress, the news, or social media. Eliminate as many triggers as possible. If you can’t, develop coping mechanisms to manage the stress.

Emotional stress can also worsen due to a lack of quality sleep and a poor diet. Talk to your healthcare professional about individualized diet plans and supplements. Some helpful supplements to manage stress include:

  • B complex
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin D
  • Magnesium
  • Ashwagandha
  • Bacopa
  • Rhodiola
  • Maca

Remember, your gut health impacts many other aspects of your overall health. One of the major causes of issues with the gut-brain axis is stress. Managing your stress can do more than just help you relax, it can make you healthier.