These days, so many of us are dealing with gut issues and chronic stress. So it’s probably not surprising to hear that the two are often related. In fact, stress (especially the chronic form) can wreak havoc on our gut and contribute to several common issues, from bloating and altered bowel motions, to dysbiosis, IBS, SIBO + more!
First off, let’s talk about stress. Throughout human evolution, we more often than not experienced stress in short bursts. For example, when being chased by a lion. This kind of acute stress was generally short-lived, allowing the body to mount a response followed by a swift return back to homeostasis.
Fast-forward to today, and many of us are dealing with chronic stress on a daily basis. Think: being stuck in traffic, working, studying, staying up late and so much more!
This kind of unrelenting, chronic stress (to which we are less adapted to deal with) can keep our nervous system in overdrive, with negative flow-on effects for our gut health.
Here are just 5 ways that stress can influence our gut health:
1. Decreasing sIgA and gut immunity: Repeated stress can reduce secretory IgA (sIgA) in the gut. Secretory IgA is a class of antibodies secreted along the mucosal lining of the digestive tract. It acts as a first line of defense against bad bacteria and binds to pathogens to prevent their adherence to protect us against infection and subsequent damage to intestinal cells. Deficiences in sIgA can increase our susceptibility to GI infections, and is also associated with an increased incidence of autoimmune diseases (especially those involving the GI tract such as coeliac disease). Low sIgA may also enhance gut inflammation and permeability, thus contributing to the development of food sensitivities. Chronic and repeated stress has been demonstrated to diminish sIgA levels, with low sIgA being a common finding during testing.
2. Altered motility: Activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) or our ‘fight-or-flight’ response can lead to changes in motility through the digestive tract. This can result in a slowing down or speeding up of digestion.
3. Altered gut secretions: Activation of the SNS can also result in diminished gut secretions that are required for healthy digestion. During stressful periods, the body prioritizes other body systems over digestions, with less energy being devoted towards breaking down food. It’s not uncommon to experience low stomach acid as a result of stress, a factor that often sets the stage for further GI disturbances. In fact, low stomach acid can contribute to dysbiosis, SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), protein maldigestion, micronutrient deficiences (including non-heme iron, vitamin B12 and calcium), as well as increasing our susceptibility to bacterial, parasitic and fungal gut infections.
4. Leaky gut (elevated intestinal permeability): Even short bursts of stress (such as public speaking) has been demonstrated to induce intestinal permeability.
5. Dysbiosis: Stress is also seen to have an effect on the health of our microbiome. In a study of university students, academic stress was associated with negative changes in gut microbiome composition. Researchers noted a reduction in healthy lactobacilli bacteria after just one week of exams.
As you can see, stress can truly wreak havoc with our gut health and is often an underlying factor that needs to be addressed in any gut-based protocol. Incorporating stress-management techniques on a regular (daily!) basis is essential and may include meditation and mindfulness techniques, and much more.
How do you feel that stress has impacted your gut health? And what methods do you use to manage stress?