Maybe you’ve experienced that moment of dread before an office meeting, or a flutter in your belly before you make a not-so friendly phone call to your child’s teacher or soccer coach. The phrases “gut wrenching” or “gut feeling” may be overused, but the idea that your gut is connected to your emotions and that it responds to stress is not an exaggeration.
In fact, Dr. Amy Myers says she sees a definite connection between daily stress and her patients who suffer from autoimmune and other chronic conditions that are related to gut health. In addition, research also links chronic stress to heart disease, ulcers, diabetes and even hormone imbalance.
Worse, Dr. Myers is concerned that she’s seeing more and more children impacted by stress-related health issues than ever before.
It’s hard to escape the fact that stress is related to your overall health. Although you’ve convinced yourself you can do this “superhero” lifestyle thing, chances are your gut is reacting more often than you’d care to admit.
Some of us are so accustomed to daily stress, we’ve gotten used to the side effects. One common and overlooked impact of constant stress is how it impacts your gut – and in turn puts your immune system at risk.
Why? Because your immune system is affected by stress, and because 80% of your immune system is located in your gut – it’s the “gateway to health” on many levels.
The Way Stress Affects Your Gut and Overall Health
No matter how hard you try, there isn’t a legitimate mind trick out there that can keep your brain from interacting with your gut on some level. And as much as your brain (thoughts, emotions, and more) can dictate your gut, your gut also sends ongoing messages to your brain.
Reactions to stress can be physical (your teen just broke a glass while doing the dishes at midnight), emotional (watching another political debate is suddenly akin to a reality show), or mental (raise your hand if you tend to multi-task your multi-tasking). Yet, each involves the process of your gut and brain communicating with one another.
Dr. Myers says that this two-way brain-gut connection works beginning with how you respond to stress in general. She explains that each stressful moment creates a response from your adrenal glands, which release a stream of cortisol and other stress hormones. This adrenal response impacts digestion and immune factors, and is actually a good thing – in moderation.
A healthy inflammatory response is meant to protect your body from things like infection after an injury. This is actually a fight-or-flight reaction passed down from your ancestors and was never meant to be tapped into on an hourly or even daily basis, for weeks or months on end.
If your body is constantly responding to stress, it doesn’t have time to recover. It’ll eventually begin to defend itself by lowering the immune response after cortisol levels rise. Unfortunately, this is where the trigger for autoimmune disease may begin.
In addition, the inflammatory response makes your gut a target. If your body thinks you’re running for your life, digestion ceases as your mind seeks refuge. As it endures damage, the immune factors in the gut are reduced or halted. This lowers defenses against bacteria or other intruders from food you’re eating.
The stress-gut connection continues as unchecked harmful bacteria, such as Candida, multiply. Your body then lowers serotonin (which monitors happy feelings, good sleep and more) to fight off pathogens, which only adds to your stress levels.
5 Tips for De-Stressing and Saving Your Gut
There’s no one single “correct” way to de-stress, and you can literally stress yourself out trying to figure out how to de-stress. But Dr. Myers has a few tips to look into, so choose what works for you and use the others as a springboard for endless possibilities.
1) Sensory Deprivation Floatation Session. Provide a reprieve for your senses with a sensory deprivation tank that offers an escape for your senses and relief for your soul. Filled with a high concentration of Epsom salt, you’ll float effortlessly in water the same temperature as your body. In the 60-90 minutes you’re floating, you’ll lower cortisol levels, relieve sore and tired muscles, and give all your senses a time out.
2) An App That Brings Balance. There are several apps available for your smart phone to assist you in controlling your response to stress by synching your heart rate, breathing, and thoughts. Set goals and track your progress, and let your smart phone do the rest. Two apps that are wildly popular and very useful are the Inner Balance app and the Headspace: Meditation app.
3) Infrared Sauna Therapy. Benefits include detoxification and stress relief. Infrared saunas can be used at home (if you have the space and can afford it), or for most of us mere mortals, at a spa center.
4) Spend Time in Nature With Your Loved Ones. When nature calls – as in the wildflowers blooming in the nature preserve are singing your song – grab your significant other, a willing child, or your dog and hit the trail. Breathing fresh air, moving your body, and connecting with someone you love will not only reduce your stress, but lift your spirits as well.
5) Get in Your Tub and Relax! That soaking tub in your master bathroom wasn’t meant to hold plants or extra linens. Leave your phone on the nightstand (unless you plan to play the spa channel on your music streaming app), draw the blinds closed, light some candles, and turn on the hot water. Add some bath salts and soak away the stress of the day while inhaling the healing aromas.
Of course, this list isn’t the be-all end-all. You can create your own list of de-stressing strategies, which may vary from starting a new hobby to attending a place of religion more frequently. As long as it’s something that takes your mind and body away from high levels of stress, you’ll be well on your way to a healthier body, and specifically a healthier gut.