Stress, Microbiome, & Gut Health: How They Are Connected
If you have ever felt anxious or nervous, you might have experienced an uncomfortable feeling in your gut. How does a psychological response lead to uncomfortable digestive symptoms? Discover more about the connection between stress and your gut health in this post.
The gut-brain axis
In ancient Egypt, those in charge of embalming bodies would preserve every organ in the body carefully, except the brain. When it comes to the organ responsible for speech, movement, memory, thought, and just about every function in our body, they would hammer a chisel through the nose and then use a sharp instrument to scoop the brain out through the hole. Many today would “laugh” at their disregard for such a complex yet crucial organ in our human body. Yet many do not know that a second brain exists in our gut, also known as the enteric nervous system.
Sandwiched between the epithelial cells found in the small intestine and colon is a complex network of neurons and nerves that is responsible for every gastrointestinal process, muscle contractions, the release of digestive fluids, and managing blood flow. Additionally, this complex network is also responsible for our overall gut immune system. Both this complex network and our brain are intimately connected, communicating bidirectionally.
Researchers call this connection the gut-brain axis, a bidirectional communication network that connects our gut functions with the emotional and cognitive parts of the brain. In short, our enteric nervous system communicates with our brain through a series of pathways, such as the central nervous system, the autonomic nervous system, and the vagus nerve.
How stress affects our gut
Our automatic stress response, also known as fight-or-flight, serves as a protective response to any threatening situations. In the past, it helped early humans avoid being eaten by wild animals. Now, it may serve as a response to an impending presentation one has to give at work or a school examination. When we encounter a stressful situation, our sympathetic nervous system becomes activated and initiates a stress response, boosting our cortisol production, which leads to several changes in our body, including our gut.
Besides digestive issues, such as slowed digestion, stomach cramps, bloated stomach symptoms, and diarrhoea symptoms, stress also causes our gut to produce less mucus which is the protective layer coating our bowel wall. Hence, an individual with chronic stress often experiences more inflammation, which increases the severity of IBS symptoms.
Stress and our microbiome
While an exact cause-and-effect connection has not yet been established, observational research has proven that psychological stress causes a change in our microbiome. There are a number of plausible cause-and-effect suggestions found.
Firstly, stress often leads to increased cravings and comfort in binging processed foods rich in salt, fat, and sugar. Increased consumption of such a diet can disrupt the diversity of our gut microbiome severely, leading to dysbiosis. Beyond dietary changes, stress also impacts bacterial populations. The reduction in mucus production and change in gut motility changes the living condition in our gut, allowing pathological bacteria to thrive at the expense of commensal or beneficial microbes.
Our gut-brain axis is a two-way network that communicates our brain with our gut functions. Hence, whenever we experience stress, we often also experience gut-related issues, such as abdominal pain and vomiting symptoms. While mainly mild and temporary, stress can also be associated with gastrointestinal disorders, such as IBD and IBS, which can be managed by going for a gastroenterology visit. While the relationship between stress and our gut microbiome has not been established, studies have found several gut responses associated with chronic stress.
Nevertheless, whether you are feeling stressed or not, the health of your gut should not be overlooked. If you want to maintain a healthy gut microbiome and an overall healthy body, then look no further than GUTCARE, a digestive care specialist.