Written by: Chelsea Haines, Executive Contributor
Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.
All things gut health have skyrocketed in popularity in the last 10 years. What used to be a relatively unknown aspect of our body is now often referred to as the "second brain." The gut influences everything from your mood to your cravings and even how often you get sick.
We're so often advised to "manage our stress" by our doctors and loved ones. But today, I hope you'll have a clearer picture of the direct impact stress can have on our incredibly powerful gut. Nearer the end, I also discuss some actionable steps to manage that stress and get the most out of our nervous system.
The nervous system
In a nutshell, the nervous system is all about making sure everything in your body works together. It uses electrical signals to send messages around, kind of like a big communication highway. Without it, your body wouldn't know what to do or when.
The nervous system has two parts: the central nervous system (CNS) with the brain and spinal cord and the peripheral nervous system (PNS) with nerves throughout the body.
The CNS controls everything, while the PNS helps you feel, move, and respond.
The PNS and why it matters
The PNS has two branches: the somatic nervous system and the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The somatic system handles things you control, like moving your arms and legs. The ANS takes care of things you don't have to consider, like breathing and digestion.
The ANS has two parts, too: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system responses. The sympathetic system kicks in when you're stressed or in danger. It revs you up, makes your heart beat faster, and gets you ready to fight, run away, or play dead (freeze.) The parasympathetic system helps you calm down and relax. It slows your heart rate and helps with things like digestion and healing.
The modern-day reality (why it all matters)
If the sympathetic system helps us act fast, think on our feet, and react to danger, most commonly known as the "fight or flight" response. While at one time, its primary role was to protect us from physical danger (like a bear or swarm of wasps), in modern times, this response is often activated with something as simple as an urgent work email. The reality is that most of us are LIVING in this reactive mode. Meaning our body is staying in a heightened sense of stress even in the absence of real danger.
The consequences are problems with sleep, anxiety, blood sugar issues, gut microbiome imbalances and chronic bloat, sexual dysfunction, brain fog, memory issues, fatigue, difficulty recovering from exercise or stressful events, getting sick easily, and chronic pain.
The chronic inflammation we live in is self-imposed and is, in fact, killing us. The top killers today are lifestyle-related diseases. We are living in such a way that, for the first time in history, our top killer is - our own lifestyle.
The opposite: Rest and digest
Modern research has shown us just how important it is to keep a healthy and happy gut microbiome. But in that fight or flight mode, we can't do the most important thing: absorb the nutrients we need to survive and thrive and to appropriately eliminate the waste. If we don't switch to the parasympathetic nervous system, we don't get a chance to "rest and digest" - I also like to add “heal and regenerate.” Meaning we are not only living our lives with the issues mentioned above - we are not even able to absorb the nutrients from our life-giving fuel - our food - and eliminate what we don’t need, creating the perfect storm for toxic overload and a sluggish liver and metabolism.
The gut-brain axis
The gut-brain axis refers to the connection between your gut and your brain. The gut speaks to your brain through neural pathways, chemical signals, and even through our immune system. It's a two-way communication system that affects your digestion, emotions, and overall health - physical and mental.
Our gut produces many chemicals that can travel through your body and impact your brain. These chemicals, like hormones and neurotransmitters, can influence your mood, behavior, motivation and, scarily enough - even your thinking.
With 70-80% of immune cells being present in the gut, it is easy to see just how powerful our gut health is on our overall health. These immune cells can trigger responses in our brain.
Meaning inflammation in the gut can and often does impact the brain and can even lead to neurological and mental health issues. Now that's reason enough for me to sit up straight and pay more attention to managing my stress.
Stress & Gut Health
Johns Hopkins Medicine reveals how digestive issues impact millions of Americans. In our own lives, we also have noticed how much more common digestive issues have been in recent years during the increasing demands placed on us, paralleling our increasing levels of stress.
Stress messes with how our bodies break down and absorb nutrients. Bloated? Upset stomach? - Stress could very well be the reason. Gut motility refers to how things move around in our gut. Stress impacts our gut motility by causing issues like diarrhea and/or constipation, another two issues we at The Gut Health Agency see more and more of every day.
Stress Busters: Friends in our belly
Your gut is home to a whole bunch of tiny microbes, your gut microbiome. These are bacteria and other microorganisms that make up much of who you are. Let me tell you - you want to keep these guys happy.
Stress, however, seems to throw off the good gut microbes, allowing the bad microbes to multiply and outnumber the good. This can result in poor digestion, a weaker immune system, and a lower mood.
Stress can mess with your gut's natural defenses and make your intestines more permeable (known as leaky gut.) It's like opening the floodgates and letting food particles, and more, seep through that shouldn't. This will lead to inflammation in your gut, causing discomfort and potentially triggering digestive and autoimmune issues.
So what do we do about this?
I have a whole blog post about how to stop and prevent burnout if you really want to dive into this, but here are some quick and very actionable steps to managing your stress.
Mindfulness - a word we see so often with little understanding of how to act on it. It doesn't need to be complicated. Mindfulness can be as simple as noticing your racing heart or feelings of anxiety. Just noticing is the first step.
After noticing, using breath, for example, can be all it takes to take you from that
fight-or-flight mode into rest-and-digest. Spending more time in the parasympathetic state is the simplest way to improve your quality of life, longevity, and even your life span. Take a few moments each day to breathe deeply; a single deep breath might be all it takes.
Learning and incorporating something as easy as box breathing could do the trick. Box breathing involves inhaling for 4 counts, holding for 4 counts at the top, exhaling for 4 counts, and holding for 4 counts at the bottom. Repeat this pattern a few times and see how you feel!
Focus on incorporating fiber-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes into your meals. Fiber is fuel for your beneficial gut microbes, helping them thrive and maintain a healthy balance.
Fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi are some of your gut's favorite foods. They contain live cultures of helpful bacteria that can support healthy gut microbiota.
Additionally, avoid excessive consumption of processed foods, sugary treats, and unhealthy fats. These can disrupt the balance of your gut microbiota and contribute to inflammation and stress.
Regular exercise and good quality sleep are essential not only for your physical health but also for your gut and stress management.
Exercise helps stimulate gut motility, improving digestion and reducing the risk of constipation. It can also boost your mood by releasing feel-good hormones called endorphins. A simple daily walk in the neighborhood can do wonders for your gut and mental health.
Getting enough sleep is crucial for your body's recovery and overall well-being. Most of us exist in a state of sleep deprivation. Lack of sleep can increase stress levels and negatively affect your gut health. Aim for 8+ hours of quality sleep each night to support a healthy
gut-brain connection - and understand that each hour before midnight equals two hours after midnight.
It's not a one-size-fits-all
The connection between stress, the nervous system, and gut health is undeniable. Stress can disrupt the delicate balance of your gut, affecting digestion, gut microbes, and even
gut-brain communication. It's a fascinating relationship that highlights the impact of stress on gut health and overall well-being.
Taking a holistic approach to managing your stress and improving your gut health is how we can truly address the impact of stress on gut health.
Managing stress and improving gut health is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Each person's needs may vary, and it's so important to listen to your body and find what works best for you. It may involve a combination of stress management techniques, dietary adjustments, exercise, and other self-care practices. This is why it is so important to utilize the professionals who have dedicated their lives to researching and helping others to nurture your gut-healthy relationship to a healthier and happier you.
Chelsea Haines, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
Recently featured "The Gut Health Coach" by Yahoo!, Chelsea Haines has a unique way of helping high-performers heal. She doesn't claim to know best. Her mission: to remind you that YOU are the expert on your body, only you know precisely what you need, and you are not "crazy" for feeling how you feel. Her expertise stems from personally healing autoimmune disease paired with formal degrees in psychology, gut health, and mindfulness. She’s the Founder of The Gut Health Agency, where a team of health coaches & Registered Dietitians merge health coaching with clinical testing for increased patient compliance and lasting habit change ‒ a needle-moving combination not otherwise seen in the gut health space.