Mind & Body

Stressed out? Your gut health could be majorly suffering

Stress can wreak havoc on your digestive system thanks to a few fight-or-flight hormones. Lifestyle medicine expert and psychologist Jennifer Murrant shares how mindfulness can improve your gut health.

If running on adrenaline is a familiar state of existence for you, your mind and body may be suffering – even if you have a healthy diet, and how we eat is as important and what we eat.

Stress was declared by the World Health Organisation as “the epidemic of the 21st Century”. This already alarming health concern has been further exacerbated by the additional stress placed on us as a result of the current Covid crisis.

When we consider that much of our immune system resides in our gut, being mindful of our digestion, and the impact of stress, feels particularly relevant these days.

How does stress impact our digestion?

Stress is perceived by the body as a threat, prompting spontaneous emotional and biological processes to basically ensure survival.

As part of the Autonomic Nervous System, survival is a very strong instinctual response. It will trigger hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol to support the fight or flight system, and increase heart rate and blood pressure to literally prepare us to run or defend ourselves.

But the opposite of this fight-or-flight response is rest and digest, and because the ANS is a reciprocal system, our digestion becomes suppressed when we’re stressed because the body deems it ‘nonessential’ to immediate survival.

Cortisol also leads to an increase in blood glucose and the hormone insulin, thus increasing available energy.

This hormone also suppresses our digestion and, when elevated for extended periods of time, may contribute to intestinal permeability (leaky gut) and may negatively impact our gut flora.

In a regulated nervous system, or where there are good stress management strategies, our nervous systems return to normal after the threat or perceived threat has passed.

But when the stress is ongoing, our systems are perpetually primed ready for fight or flight. This is why chronic stress, for any reason, interferes with sleep and digestion, as well as other systems, such as our immune system.

Ways we can reduce stress and improve digestion

Prepare for digestion

Intentionally slow your system in preparation for digestion. This does not take long. Avoid eating too soon before or after exercise, avoid eating on the run, or when stressed. Take a few moments to breathe and gain awareness of your surroundings.

Anticipating a delicious and nourishing meal activates the vagus nerve in readiness for digestion. You may notice an increase in saliva or increased sense of hunger.

Eat mindfully

This involves all of the above, as well as appreciating and savouring flavours, chewing properly, slowing eating, encouraging the production of digestive enzymes. A published review concluded that mindful eating helped to improve gastrointestinal function and wellbeing in general.

Regulate your nervous system

This involves paying attention to our responses, such as a quickening heart rate, which can help us identify when a stress response has been initiated, thus bringing awareness to the mind-body connection.

Incorporating self-care and mindfulness practices

This may be spending time in nature, reading a book, meditating, or simply spending a few minutes deep breathing.

Helping to intentionally slow our physiology allows respite and repair, encouraging new neural pathways towards a more regulated nervous system.

Jennifer Murrant has worked in the lifestyle medicine space for over 20 years, specialising in the interplay between physiological and psychological health. She has a BHSc in Complementary Medicine as well as post graduate qualifications in Counselling, Psychotherapy, Coaching Psychology and Somatic Experiencing. Follow her @healthyluxe.