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4 Ways Stress Breaks Down The Gut

May 31, 2022

Are you living with an unhappy belly? Bloating, abdominal pain, constipation, loose stools, reflux? 

Have you tried to get your gut working better by taking PPI’s or antispasmodics, or even natural gut supplements like probiotics or digestive enzymes, but still your gut is struggling?

If yes - you haven’t got to the root cause of your gut issues…yet!

So what is a major root cause, often forgotten when trying to treat the gut? STRESS - in ALL its many facets. 

Stress breaks down the gut in four major ways: 

 

  1. Cortisol & Secretory IgA

Your adrenal glands secrete your stress hormone cortisol. When cortisol has been switched on too high, for too long (due to chronic stress), it can have a very direct impact on your gut.

For example, the immune cells that line your digestive tract (known as secretary IgA or SigA) are regulated by cortisol - when cortisol is high, it drags down your SigA levels. SigA is measured in some of the functional medicine GI stool tests that we run. It can tell us a lot about your gut function, and also your immune system.

When SigA is HIGH it tells us that your immune system is either fighting a gut infection (i.e. parasites, yeast, bacterial infections) or it is responding to a problematic food. When sIgA is LOW, well, low is not good news...It tells us that over time your immune system in your gut lining has depleted (due to, for example, long-term chronic gut infections, problematic foods, medications, and/or stress/adrenal fatigue - in fact, one research study showed that frustration can reduce your SIgA by 50%!). If depleted, you are more likely to develop infections in the gut, which can lead to gut symptoms.

Low SIgA can also lead to immune system issues. If you're someone who gets chronic infections - whether that be in the gut, or somewhere else like the sinuses, vagina, urinary tract, chest, or skin - chances are your SIgA is low, and in order to fully get over your reoccurring infections, you'll first need to address your low SIgA and the underlying causes (most often, stress!).

 

  1. Stress & Reduced Blood Flow 

When cortisol is out of balance, resulting in adrenal fatigue, it can also affect your gut by reducing blood flow to your digestive tract. When the body (or mind) is under stress, blood flow to the gut is restricted to allow maintenance of appropriate flows to the other fight-flight body systems, such as the brain, heart, and skeletal muscles. This leaves the poor gut in its own state of stress, which can lead to all types of gut issues if there is chronic stress.

Intestinal blood flow is critical for digestion, including for the production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach which helps to break down foods. Dysfunctional stomach acid can lead to heartburn and reflux, but also downstream issues such as irregular bowel movements, bloating, and gassiness due to undigested food particles.

 

  1. Cortisol & Catabolic Damage

Stress can also lead to gut issues as it is very catabolic in nature. When cortisol is switched on, it will start breaking down muscle tissue as it gets your body ready to fight or flee from 'the tiger'! The easiest place to pull amino acids from the muscle tissue is from the gut lining. If you are in a state of stress for too long, you can literally eat away at your gut lining, leading to intestinal impermeability. This is also known as 'leaky gut' where your gut lining starts to separate. This is a very inflamed state to be in, and can lead to gut issues.

 

  1. Vagus Nerve

Lastly, I can't talk about the connection between stress and the gut, without talking about the Vagus Nerve. For anyone who has gut issues out there, I'm sure many of you would agree that stress and anxiety exacerbate gut issues, or maybe even causes them!

There is a nerve - the VAGUS NERVE - which connects the brain to the gut. If you are anxious, this nerve will send signals to switch off the digestive system, which can lead to all sorts of gut issues.

 

There is a lot of research out there that supports this gut-brain connection. Some research shows:

  • When participants are under stress, their migrating motor complex (muscle contractions that move food from one end to the other) switches off.
  • There is a higher prevalence (44%) of sexual or physical abuse in patients with GI disorders.
  • People with anxiety are more likely to have chronic post-infectious gut issues following food poisoning.

 

Addressing Stress Can Help Address Gut Issues

Here are some top recommendations for addressing stress:

  • Testing and holistically treating adrenal stress hormones and/or neurotransmitters if out (sometimes this is all that is needed to reset the gut!).
  • Work with a coaching expert skilled in addressing how you respond to stress, and help you reprogram your thought, feeling, and behavioural patterns. 
  • Address dietary, lifestyle, and environmental stressors.
  • Engage in daily acts of “stillness” like meditation, breathwork, mindfulness, yoga, QiGong.
  • Stimulate the vagus nerve with alternating nostril breathing and/or humming. 

 

Conquering Hormonal & Gut Burnout

If you’re keen to learn more about the connection between stress and the gut, sign up to our (free) 10-part mini-course “Conquering Hormonal & Gut Burnout”. 

 


Filipa Bellette is Co-Founder of Chris & Filly Functional Medicine. She is an accredited Clinical Nutritionist & Functional Medicine Practitioner. She is also a Ph.D. thought-leader, award-winning writer, and regularly published as a guest blogger & in the media. Together with her husband Chris Bellette, Filipa has worked with over 2,000+ busy, burnout clients in the last 10+ years, and specialises in producing healthy, balanced, and happy Mums & Dads...or as she calls it, a Power Parent! Filipa’s own passion for producing high-performance Power Parents came from her own personal experience of Mummy Burnout, after having babies and juggling the demands of business, family, and her failing health.

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