Updated: Oct 18
Over the last few years there has been an increase in mental conditions. One in five experienced some level of depression with stress and anxiety being the common manifestation for depression.
There is a clear link between stress and gut health and it works both ways. An imbalanced gut is linked to causing mental illnesses including anxiety and depression. On the other hand, stress can cause gut related health conditions.
So in other words, chronic stress can lead to problems with the gut and problems with the gut can lead to persistent anxiety and depression.
Let's talk about stress and how it impacts our gut. Well one of the key players is the hormone cortisol which our body releases when we encounter a stressful situation. In short spurts cortisol has a positive role to play in our body. It helps us to stay alert when we counter a stressful situation and triggers the release of glucose so that we have extra energy. Short spurts of cortisol during intense exercise help to regulate our metabolism and helps to boost immunity.
However, if you are constantly stressed or anxious then elevated cortisol can have a serious impact on your health. Constant elevated levels of cortisol slows the release of saliva, therefore impairing enzymes that help break down food. Having consistently high levels of cortisol, also slows down digestion or in some cases speeds it up too much so that nutrients don’t get absorbed. It also slows down your immune system so you can end up getting ill more often.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio
But one of the worst consequences of constant elevated cortisol is the impact on the gut microbiome. It can cause inflammation in the gut, sometimes resulting in intestinal permeability (a.k.a hyperpermeability or leaky gut). Studies show people who suffer from chronic stress and constant anxiety have a far higher chance of having a permeable gut.
So what is intestinal permeability or leaky gut? Well a healthy gut consists of a selective permeable barrier that allows absorption of nutrients and water but prevents harmful molecules from passing through. The spaces between the cells are known as tight junctions that are held together by specific proteins. Constant inflammation can cause the gaps between the cells to widen, as well as the cell walls themselves to weaken, resulting in unwanted pathogens or other organic material to pass through. Although leaky gut has been spoken about and blamed for a number of conditions by naturopaths and alternative medical practitioners, it has only been taken seriously by the medical world since the year 2000, when Dr Alessio Fasano proved that it is an actual condition. Symptoms of a leaky gut can include IBS, diarrhoea, gas, bloating, abdominal pain and burning sensation, brain fog, fatigue, mood imbalances. There are many associations with autoimmune diseases like IBD, celiac disease, arthritis, chronic fatigue, asthma, diabetes, and fibromyalgia, amongst others, however the science is still up in the air and further research is needed.
Another way in which cortisol impacts the gut is by decreasing the number of prostaglandins, a compound which reduces acidity in the stomach, leading to reduced bile secretion and enzyme production. Certain strains of bacteria do not survive in very acidic environments so this results in less species inhabiting your gut. Moreover, reduced bile secretion and enzyme production result in food not being broken down properly in the stomach and large undigested carbohydrates entering the small intestine. Bacteria feed off these carbohydrates and thrive and rapidly increase resulting in an over load of bacteria in the small intestine, a condition known as small intestinal bacteria overgrowth (SIBO).
There is so much gut related research being done in our current time that I am sure even more light with be shed on how chronic stress impacts our health.
But in the meantime it is clear that stress plays a big part in causing health issues so even though stress is often unavoidable, it is important to find ways to cope with it.