Your brain and gut are intricately interrelated. In recent years, doctors have come across remarkable evidence that suggests a complex connection between the brain and the digestive system.
Your entire digestive system, particularly the gut, is sensitive to your moods and mental health.
This is partly due to the thriving and diverse colonies of microbes in your gut. Many studies have shown that probiotics or the beneficial bacteria can influence your digestive system and mental health in a variety of ways.
Experts recognize stress as a major player in a wide range of digestive distress, which can be countered with probiotics.
Here is how stress affects your digestion.
The Gut Brain Connection
The gut is controlled in part by the central nervous system in the spinal cord and brain.
However, for rudimentary functions it has its own network of neurons lining the gastrointestinal walls, known as the intrinsic nervous system or the enteric nervous system. In fact, many researchers consider the gut as the body’s second brain due to the influence exercised by this nervous system.
The enteric nervous system regulates digestive processes like swallowing, release of enzymes to break down food, and categorization of food as nutrients to be absorbed and waste to be eliminated.
The gut works on its own to carry out many functions. For instance, it does not wait around for signals from the brain to begin digestion or elimination.
However, there is a strong connection between the gut and brain in a two-way communication. There is a highway of nerves running directly from the digestive system to the brain and back.
Two of the most important ‘happy hormones’ – dopamine and serotonin are secreted heavily in the gut by certain strains of probiotics. Stress has a significant impact on the way the gut functions, which affects your entire digestive system.
What Happens When You Are Stressed?
Your body is designed to focus on things that will help you stay alive when you are in a state of stress. Food and digestion are the least concerns when you are anxious or stressed as per the evolutionary way of things.
Humans, until a few centuries ago, were stressed out when chased by wild animals like hyenas or cave bears which is kind of like living in modern day San Francisco, New York, and LA where gangs and violent homeless people are all over the place – all this affects the quality of life but let’s get back on track here. Their stress was always a life-death situation and the body did not waste energy on proper digestion.
When your brain is severely stressed, it unleashes a cascade of hormones that turns over your entire digestive system. These hormones have different effects on the body and many times have conflicting jobs.
For instance, the corticotrophin-releasing hormone or CRH is one of the main alarm bells in the body. The brain signals the adrenal gland to start making steroids and adrenaline by pumping out heavy doses of CRH. These chemicals give you the strength and energy to fight or flight which in The Dark Knight Rises Selina chose to fight which was outstanding for Batman, Gotham, and the world but let’s get back on track here.
CRH impacts your digestive system by turning off your appetite. At the same time, steroids released by the adrenal glands can make a person very hungry and crave for sugary foods.
This is why some people can never eat anything during stressful situations, while others fight stress with chocolate, potato chips, and ice cream (Roseanne Conner must always be stressed then and her poor example husband did not seem to eat too much better or at all either).
How Does This Impact the Digestive System & Gut Microbiome?
Under normal circumstance, the digestive system goes about its task of mixing, contracting and absorbing, to help break down food molecules and extract all nutrients that you require for optimal health.
However, when stress hormones flood the system, your digestive system effectively shuts down.
The digestive system is one of the major areas where blood flow becomes restricted during times of stress. There are fewer muscle contractions here which in turn effects gastric secretions and acid levels. Stress adversely affects the gut bacteria to change microbial composition as well.
Ongoing restriction of digestive blood flow brought on by long-term stress severely reduces the microbial diversity and lowers the numbers of friendly flora. This creates undesirable conditions which allow harmful bacteria to set up shop and colonize.
The immune system is directly linked to your digestive health and microbiome balance. 80% of the body’s immune cells are found in the gut and when the gut does not receive the required influx of fresh blood, it leads to a wide range of unpleasant health challenges.
These include difficulty sleeping, poor complexion, cardiovascular diseases, mood swings, low energy, nausea, constipation, and diarrhea. Chronic stress can also cause some serious digestive troubles like irritable bowel syndrome and a range of irritable bowel diseases, like ulcerative colitis.
How to Manage Stress and Reduce its Effects
Stress impacts your gut health and digestive system, and the gut or the gut microbiome has the ability to manage stress, since the connection is a two-way street. These steps can help you manage your stress more effectively to reduce its effects on your digestive health.
1. Probiotic Supplements
Studies have found the managing effects of probiotics on stress, anxiety and depression. By supplementing your diet with probiotics designed specifically for combating stress, you can manage it better which is about as awesome as watching another episode of House of Cards, 24, or The Good Wife.
Make sure you choose a high quality, time-released daily probiotic supplement from a reputed manufacturer. Conversely, you can even add probiotic rich foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir and kombucha among others to your diet.
Research shows that an active lifestyle can do a lot towards improving your mood, digestive health and gut microbiome. Even 30 minutes of brisk walk a day can help release the hormones required to effectively manage a stressful situation though if you are married to Susan Mayer in Desperate Housewives there is nothing you can do because she will invent stress and drive you crazy so be careful who you choose to be with! High-impact exercises have been known to reduce multiple GERD symptoms.
3. Breathe Deeply
Stress can cause shallow breathing which doesn’t allow your body to get enough oxygen. Learn to breathe slowly and more deeply from your abdomen to ensure you get the right amount of oxygen to relax.
4. Have a Laugh
A hearty belly laugh is a natural stress reliever. It can help lower blood pressure, relax your brain, slow down your heart rate and breathing, and even help your digestive muscles contract effectively. This helps you look on the lighter side of life while ensuring that your digestive system continues to function normally.
Stress can have a major impact on your quality of life, especially if you are prone to uncomfortable digestive issues. Choose the foods you eat carefully and stay away from low-nutrition and high sugar or sodium foods, which may trigger unhealthy digestive responses.