Understanding the link between stress and gut health this Stress Awareness Month

April is Stress Awareness Month, which has been held every year since 1992 to increase public awareness about both the causes and cures for our modern stress epidemic.

According to the NHS, stress is one of our greatest public health challenges, but it still isn't taken seriously compared to physical illness. Stress is a significant factor in mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, and is also linked to physical health issues such as heart disease, insomnia, digestive problems and compromised immunity.

In this blog we explain the impact of chronic stress on gut health, and not only that, we also highlight the fact that less than optimal gut health can impact your mood and mental wellbeing and what you can do to both support your gut and manage the stress in your life. Let this Stress Awareness Month be the month that changes your life for the better.

What exactly is stress?

Stress is a person’s physical and emotional response to a situation or event. It can be thought of as the body’s response to any real and also imagined/perceived threats.

In short bursts, stress can be positive, for example when it helps you avoid a dangerous situation or meet a deadline. It’s when a person’s stress load becomes more than they can handle, physically and mentally, that it becomes detrimental. 

What happens in response to stress?

When the brain perceives any type of threat, such as being faced with a sabre-toothed tiger whilst out foraging for food as our ancestors would have been, the stress response, which starts in the hypothalamus (at the base of the brain) is activated, this is also known as ‘fight or flight’.

The stress response is a physiological reaction that sends signals from the hypothalamus to the pituitary gland in the brain and the adrenal medulla in the adrenal glands to stimulate the adrenal glands to produce the stress hormone cortisol.

This response is totally linked to our survival and designed for one-off threats, not chronic ones.

Today’s modern world stress is very different; it’s chronic, it’s persistent, which over time, has detrimental effects on body systems.

No longer are we having to fight or flee from sabre-toothed tigers, today we are busy juggling many roles, facing pressures at work and at home, worrying about finances and living through pandemics! Not to mention other daily stressors such as being stuck in traffic or long commutes to and from work on delayed, packed trains.

SOME pressure or stress can be a good thing because it motivates us to go about our day and get things done. It’s when our stressors become more than we are physiologically designed to handle that it starts to take its toll on our mental, emotional and physical health.

Stress and your gut.

One of the systems that bears the brunt of the chronic ‘fight or flight’ response is the gut, leading to digestive issues such as those associated with an irritable bowel (IBS) like bloating, gas, pain, indigestion, constipation, diarrhoea and malabsorption of nutrients from your food.

How stress impacts your gut and your gut impacts your mind

We’ve already seen that the stress response begins in your brain, and your gut and your brain are linked in a couple of ways, which means stress impacts your gut and your gut health can impact your mental wellbeing. This link is commonly known as the ‘gut-brain axis’. 

The wall, or lining of your digestive tract is made up of two thin layers of over 100 million cells and runs from your oesophagus to your rectum. This is known as the enteric nervous system and its main role of this lining is controlling the digestion and absorption of your food as well as the permanent elimination of the by-products of digestion via a bowel movement.

This gut branch of your nervous system may be why some of us experience the various symptoms of IBS such as the feeling of ‘butterflies’ in the stomach, loose or urgent stools, constipation, bloating, pain and nausea. Evidence shows that these symptoms may be triggered by stress.

When the fight or flight stress response is activated, it shunts the blood supply towards your heart and muscles and away from systems of the body that aren’t necessary for a physical fight for survival, such as the digestive system. This can be at the root of many of the typical IBS systems such as bloating after eating and between meals, constipation, loose and urgent stools and acid reflux. When the blood supply is diverted away from your gut it becomes very difficult for digestive processes to work properly, resulting in such symptoms.

Studies show that this link can also work the opposite way around. For example, imbalances in gut bacteria and or a weak gut lining, may send signals to the brain that trigger shifts in mood such as depression and anxiety. This may explain why more than 50% of IBS patients also have depression or anxiety. A study in 2013 concluded that ‘the prevalence of depression and anxiety in IBS is very high. Therefore, screening of IBS patients for anxiety and depression would facilitate better interventions and consequently better outcomes.’ 

One fantastic way to support the integrity and strength of the gut lining, and thus support your enteric nervous system, is with the nutrient L-Glutamine. 

L-glutamine is a non-essential amino acid often simply called glutamine. It is produced by the body and also found in food. Glutamine has been shown in studies to be a fantastic and much-needed nutrient for repairing and fuelling the cells of the gut wall, which can weaken over time. This is why we include glutamine in our POW (https://wearejunius.com/products/pow-shot) cold pressed shot. Glutamine has also been shown to support muscle recovery and post-exercise it was shown to decrease muscle soreness and increase recovery time.

Other foods that can support your gut lining include anti-inflammatory foods such the omega 3 fats DHA and EPA which are richest in oily fish, ginger and turmeric which we include inside the ZEN range.

Gut bacteria and anxiety and low mood

More than one kilogram of bacteria live in your gut and this represents more organisms (around 100 trillion) than there are cells in the human body and this is known as the ‘microbiome’. The more diversity of friendly (protective) strains of bacteria in your gut the more protective against digestive health issues as these incredible microorganisms assist in the breakdown and digestion of our food, the absorption and manufacture of nutrients process nutrients, as well as the production of important immune-system molecules. 

Another important role of your gut bacteria is the production of the ’happy chemical’ serotonin. 80-90% of your serotonin is made in your gut by your friendly bacteria and so it’s really important to support and encourage the growth of this bacteria there. One study showed that depressed participants and non-depressed participants had significantly different gut microbiota pictures. 

How to feed your gut microbiome

Include quality fibre in your daily diet from dark green leafy vegetables and other colourful vegetables and berries.

A couple of tablespoons of ground flaxseed daily is a great source of both fibre and anti-inframammary omega 3 fats. Chia seeds, pumpkin and sunflower seeds and unsalted raw nuts are also great sources of fibre and other helpful nutrients.

Include pre-biotic fibres from foods such as onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, oats, green bananas and Jerusalem artichoke.

Include pro-biotics (live friendly bacteria) from fermented foods such as raw sauerkraut (fermented cabbage), kimchi (fermented vegetables), dairy, water or coconut kefir drink, tempeh (fermented soybean) and no added sugar kombucha (fermented tea).

Understanding the link between stress and gut health can be a powerful way to inspire a change in habits if you suffer with digestive issues and you know your stress is chronic. This stress awareness month we really wanted to highlight this link and empower as many people as possible to both better manage their stress and take care of the health of their gut. Try incorporating some or all of the tips above and consider including a daily dose of glutamine by way of our POW shot for an improvement in not just gut health but mental wellbeing as well.