Do you know what stress really does to your gut? Find out!

by | Jul 5, 2017 | Digestion

Were you always taught to trust your gut instincts when you were younger? Maybe you’re still being told to this now. They’re usually right on the money but what if I told you that when you’re stressed, your gut changes the messages it sends around your body… including the ones it sends to your brain? Would you think twice about trusting it?


The more the scientific community is finding out about the role of gut health and the gut microbiome in controlling our feelings, mood and even our response to stress, the more they realise that we are at the mercy of the health of our microbes.


What happens to your body when you’re stressed?


Research has found that if you start with a healthy diversity of gut microbes and a well-functioning digestive system and put it under stress, it responds better than if you had a poor gut microbiome. Translated in to plain english that means that the healthier your gut, the less likely you are to suffer symptoms of stress. Your body and your microbiome is able to better withstand the hormonal changes that come along with stress.


Eventually though, if the stress is prolonged, your microbiome will succumb to those hormonal changes and the increase in cortisol changes your microbiome and changes the messages it sends out to the rest of your body. 


What causes stress?

The million dollar question really isn’t it? If you knew the answer you wouldn’t be reading this and you’d never have a care in the world! Perhaps the better question is why do you feel stressed? Is it just produced inside of you without you having any control or is it is your reaction to outside influences like lifestyle and environment? As we develop a deeper understanding of the gut microbiome and how it influences and even controls our overall health is fascinating and terrifying at the same time.


It turns out that when your body responds to stress, it releases a couple of potent hormones. One of these is cortisol, which increases the permeability of the gut and changes the microbiome environment – this changes the kind of bacteria that can live there and not for the better. Studies have shown that stressed individuals showed overgrowths of some bacteria whilst other strains died out completely! To be healthy and happy, you need a wide diversity of probiotics and other gut microbes and having cortisol change up the delicate balance is not helpful! Cortisol also attacks brain cells, leaving you foggy, forgetful and unable to concentrate on basic tasks.


The other hormones released are inflammatory and some increase your sensitivity to pain. This explains why you end up with those bad headaches or really sore shoulders when you get stressed.


Symptoms of stress

If you answer yes to 4 or more of the following symptoms you may be stressed out:

  • Feeling tired or down right exhausted*
  • Difficulty falling asleep, feeling wired at night
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Back pain, particularly through your shoulders and neck*
  • Digestive upsets – diarrhoea or constipation*
  • Nausea or a general sick feeling*
  • Heart palpitations (bordering more on anxiety)
  • Unable to focus on one task, your mind races*
  • Feelings of worry or uneasiness*
  • Being forgetful*
  • Feelings of anxiety or depression*
  • Nail biting or other fidgeting habits

It’s not a complete list, but includes the symptoms most frequently seen clinically.


Where this all gets really interesting is how many of these symptoms are digestive or controlled by your microbiome – as shown by the * next to each relevant item.


To think that the health (or ill health) of your gut determines how you think, feel and respond to stress is an amazing opportunity to completely change the way you… well think, feel and respond to stress!

Why your nightly glass of wine isn’t helping stop the stress and what to do instead

Alcohol is a sedative and many of my patients use it at night to “wind down”. It dampens your response to adrenalin and cortisol but doesn’t eliminate it. Worse, it makes for a restless night’s sleep. Then you’re reaching for a double shot coffee in the morning.


I call it the roller-coaster from hell. Bad sleep, so you hit caffeine and sugar in the morning, jacking your adrenalin. Then you’re wired at night. Alcohol helps you “wind down” but gives you a bad sleep… and around you again.


How do you get off this roller-coaster of hell I hear you ask? Do I have to give up the only two things I enjoy: caffeine and alcohol? The good news is you don’t have to give them up. But not depending them for comfort, peace and sleep will go a long way to relieving stress.


Breaking free from stress is simple.


Use the following suggestions for a few weeks and speed up the process with a herbal adrenal formula like this one. Working on restoring balance to your microbiome is essential. These lifestyle and dietary suggestions will help:


How to relieve stress with natural remedies

  • Replace morning coffee(s) with regular black tea. Less caffeine means less adrenalin and tea helps with withdrawal headaches.
  • Eat breakfast!! Oats are wonderful and grounding. Muesli and eggs are also good choices that keep your blood sugar level. Eating before 9am helps reset cortisol and adrenalin levels.
  • Set regular hours for going to bed and getting up. Cortisol is the opposite of melatonin and will keep you awake. Regulate your sleep/wake cycle to help turn off stress patterns.
  • Reduce the sugar in your tea and coffee by half.
  • Magnesium is magic for relieving the physical symptoms of stress and anxiety.
  • Eat cooked or warm foods like casseroles, soups and stir-fries for lunch and dinner for a few weeks. They are easy to digest and nutritious, stabilising your blood sugar levels.
  • Avoid alcohol for a month. You will sleep better, get out of bed more and your head will be more clear during the day. (Losing some extra weight will be a bonus!)
  • Listen to your body. When it says, rest – have a nap or go to bed early. When it says I’m sore and achy – have an Epsom salt bath or a massage. When it says enough food/drink/work – stop and take a break, even for an hour. Your body is always talking to you, are you listening?
  • Break your day down into smaller, achievable tasks. This helps you focus on prioritising and concentrating on one thing at a time. It is okay if not everything is accomplished in one day.
  • Exercise is amazing for relieving stress but it’s often the last thing you want to do. Collapsing on the couch is much more attractive. But exercise lowers adrenalin and resets your stress-o-meter. Aim for a 5-10 minute walk around the block at lunch or after dinner. Make it somewhere green, near water or singing birds. Studies show this lowers stress and improves mood.
  • Fermented foods. Okay, maybe not your favourite go-to food but restoring balance and diversity to your gut mcirobiome is a sure-fire way to lower cortisol and re-establish a healthy brain-gut connection.
  • Probiotics, either supplements or probiotic drinks are helpful but shouldn’t be your first choice. The inflammation in your gut caused by excessive amounts of cortisol does not make for a happy environment for the good bugs to thrive so you’re best to get that sorted first with herbal formulas and dietary strategies and then try some probiotics.

Stress doesn’t have to be a life sentence

Be kind to yourself and invest in self-care strategies THAT WORK! Just pick one or two of the above list and work on getting those into your routine. Add in the Stress Ease formula and you’re on your way to a good night’s sleep and feeling less stressed.


If you’re one of the unlucky ones who’s been on the stress cycle for a while, it might be time to consider a bigger overhaul – not just using these strategies but a complete rejuvenation of your gut microbiome to restore the balance you need to have the capacity to withstand the stress in the first place! If you think that’s you, check out my Leaky Gut Bootcamp: 28 days to transform your gut health. It might be just what you and your stressed microbiome need.


Remember, don’t wait another day to start feeling better.

Kate x

Photo credit: iStock photos