Between work, bills, relationships, and just the craziness of everyday life, millions of Americans are under a great deal of stress. That’s not something to be taken lightly. Chronic stress can take a huge toll on the body, leading to serious health issues. Some ways that stress impacts the body include: high blood pressure, heart attack, insomnia, weakened immunity, weight gain, and poor digestion.
Let’s focus on that last issue — poor digestion.
When a person experiences chronic stress, certain chemicals are released into their body. Think back to grade school science. Do you remember the term fight or flight? While the body can stand to be in “fight or flight” mode for a period of time, today we are spending far too much time stressed out and not enough time “resting and digesting.” This chronic stress and overwhelming release of chemicals cause a number of detrimental effects in your gut that can eventually lead to poor overall health.
Top 5 Ways Stress Affects Gut Health
1) Unbalances Gut Bacteria
Trillions of bacteria live inside of us – most good, some bad. Researchers say we should strive to have about 80 percent good bacteria (AKA probiotics) and 20 percent bad bacteria. A balanced and diverse gut microbiome leads to overall health and wellbeing. However, if your body is constantly under stress, your gut’s good bacteria is killed and bad bacteria starts to take over. In one study, researchers looked out how stress impacted the gut bacteria in mice. They found the mice that were exposed to high levels of stress experienced an overgrowth of certain types of bad bacteria. They also experienced a reduction in good bacteria in their large intestine.
2) Compromises The Intestinal Barrier (Leaky Gut)
Have you ever heard of the term “Leaky Gut Syndrome?” When someone has a leaky gut that means the pores in their digestive tract have widened large enough to allow harmful substances (like gluten and other toxins) to literally “leak” into their bloodstream. While a poor diet, toxic overload, and frequent antibiotic use are some of the leading causes of Leaky Gut Syndrome, stress is another major contributing factor. According to researchers, when the body is under high amounts of stress, digestion is slowed, bad bacteria grows, and the intestinal barrier is compromised.
3) Fuels Inflammation
While inflammation is a process that’s actually meant to protect the body when it’s injured, chronic inflammation can be extremely harmful to health. It’s been linked to arthritis, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, and depression. To help keep your body healthy, it’s crucial to keep inflammation at bay. One way to do that is to stop stressing out so much!
A research team led by Carnegie Mellon University’s Sheldon Cohen found a link between chronic psychological stress and the body’s ability to regulate inflammation. That’s because chronic stress alters the effectiveness of cortisol, a hormone that helps to regulate inflammation. The more the body gets used to high levels of cortisol, the less effective it becomes because tissue sensitivity is decreased.
4) Decreased Nutrient Absorption
You may not even realize it, but when you eat a nutritious meal, often times your body isn’t actually absorbing all of the beneficial vitamins and minerals. A few reasons for decreased nutrient absorption include:
- Damaged intestines
- GI disorders/diseases
- Prolonged antibiotic use
- Chronic stress
5) Stress Increases Pain
While “fight or flight” mode is often associated with a decrease in pain sensation, researchers say that isn’t the case for people who suffer from gastrointestinal issues. Rather, patients with IBS and other gut disorders often show an enhanced perception of pain. In one study, researchers had 18 IBS patients and 22 control subjects use rectal balloon distensions before, during, and after mental stress. Researchers found that pain thresholds increased during stress for control subjects, but thresholds actually decreased for IBS patients.