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Alyssa Simpson RD, CDE, CLT
Alyssa Simpson

RD, CDE, CLT​

How Does Stress Affect Your Gut? IBS and the Gut-Brain Connection

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IBSandtheGut BrainConnection

We live in a time riddled with controversy. But there’s one thing we can all likely agree on: Everyone is stressed. Stress comes in many forms — large and small. So whether you’ve lost your keys or totaled your car. You have things in your daily life that cause stress.

Life happens. And stress is a part of it.

For most people, stress doesn’t feel good. Your heart races, your breathing speeds up. And for many people, stress can aggravate their digestive issues.

The connection between stress and your digestive system is real. You aren’t imagining it. And we’ve got the science to prove it.

The Gut-Brain Connection

Have you ever felt “a knot in your stomach” when you’re nervous or worried? There’s a reason for that. Scientists have discovered a connection between your gastrointestinal tract (gut) and your brain. They call it the gut-brain connection.

Both your gut and your brain contain neurons — millions of them in fact. And the neurons in your gut and brain are connected through your nervous system.

One of the largest nerves in your body, the vagus nerve, runs from your brain all the way down to your gut. This giant nerve sends information in both directions. That means it isn’t just that your brain affects your gut. Your gut also affects your brain.

Your brain and gut are also connected by neurotransmitters — chemicals that control feelings and emotions. These chemicals are made both in your brain and in your gut. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter that produces feelings of happiness is manufactured primarily in the digestive tract. Your gut also produces gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that helps control anxiety and fear.

Your Second Brain

The gut and brain are so closely related that you’ll hear scientists refer to your gut as the “second brain”.

The brain in your gut is known as the enteric nervous system. This is the network of neurons in the lining of the gastrointestinal system — from your esophagus to your anus — that connect the entire digestive system.

The enteric nervous system (ENS) regulates some of your digestive processes including swallowing, releasing enzymes, and attaching the labels “nutrient” or “waste product” to the material in your digestive system.

The ENS communicates with the rest of your nervous system through neurotransmitters. Your gut and brain are in constant, two-way communication.

The Body’s Response to Stress

When you feel stressed — or worried, or scared — the feelings you experience go far beyond your brain.

When something happens to cause stress — a near accident on the freeway, bad news at work — a tiny region at the base of your brain called the hypothalamus, springs into action and sounds the alarm.

This triggers your adrenal glands to release a flood of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormones).

This chemical reaction in your body causes an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, as well as a release of sugar into the bloodstream to meet the potential urgent energy needs. Your body also slows down non-emergency functions like tissue growth and repair, reproductive processes, and digestion.

This chemical alarm also triggers the areas of the brain that control motivation and fear.

How Stress Affects Your Gut

When your body is under stress, it affects your digestion. Our bodies are very smart. And they know how to prioritize. But they can’t distinguish between life-threatening stress (being chased by a bear) and emotional stress (getting yelled at by your boss).

When the alarm system and chemical reactions of the stress response are triggered, your body reacts the same way, regardless of the source of the stress. And one of those responses is to de-prioritize digestion.

If you’re under stress (like being chased by a wild animal), your body is concerned about survival. So it’s going to devote all available energy to that end. And digestion is not a priority at that moment.

So your digestion slows. And this can cause a whole mess of problems. Your body may slow or stop the release of digestive juices needed to properly break down your food. And if your food moves through your digestive system without being properly broken down it can cause problems ranging from constipation, to a disruption in your gut bacteria, to autoimmune disease.

Your body can deal with the problems produced from an occasional stress response. The real issue occurs when stress becomes constant — or chronic. When you stay in “fight or flight” all the time, then the trouble starts.

If one meal isn’t perfectly digested, your body can deal with it. But when meal after meal goes through your GI tract without being adequately broken down, you can develop ongoing issues like diarrhea, constipation, acid reflux, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Stress also affects your gut directly by shifting the microbiome. Your microbiome is the collection of bacteria that live in your gut. A healthy microbiome is important for things ranging from digestion, to immune function, and even mental health.

Stress can affect the variety and composition of gut microorganisms. And when the bacteria in the intestine is out of balance or not diverse enough, it opens the opportunity for harmful bacteria to grow.

Over the next few weeks we’ll be digging into the gut-brain connection. We’ll look at how your gut affects your brain — and how your brain affects your gut.

We’ll also talk about what you can do to improve your digestive issues by taking advantage of the relationship between your brain and your digestive tract.

When I work with patients in my practice, I take a holistic approach to improving their health. A problem like IBS or SIBO will manifest most clearly through digestive symptoms. So that’s the first place many practitioners look. But if you want to get to the root of the problem, you have to look at the whole body — including the gut-brain connection.

If you’re ready to take a personalized approach to your digestive issues so you can find the root cause and finally feel better, let’s talk. Just click the link below.

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