Stress: The silent killer (and your gut’s arch nemesis)

In a recent blog post in honor of mental health awareness month, we talked about how mental health and gut health go hand-in-hand and explained the science behind it. To fully address this critical topic, there is one important issue that we have to take a deeper dive into – stress! 

It’s a silent killer that shows up in many different disguises.

We all experience stress in our lives (especially in the world we live in today) and know the feeling on some level but might not recognize what it is doing to our overall health. So, let’s backtrack to the root of it all, what is the definition of stress? 

Stress is a feeling of emotional or physical tension. It can come from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous. Stress is your body’s reaction to a challenge or demand. In short bursts, stress can be positive, such as when it helps you avoid danger or meet a deadline. 

Stress is a silent killer
Stress is a feeling of emotional or physical tension.

Does stress impact gut health? 

When we are faced with a stressful situation the body responds with a cascade of physiological changes known as the “fight or flight” response. When the body senses a threat, the hypothalamus releases chemicals to the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland then passes this message on to the adrenal cortex (located on the kidneys). In response, the adrenal cortex secretes cortisol into the bloodstream which triggers a cascade of stress reactions such as increased heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar. Read on… 

Stress can also alter our gut’s microbiome! When we feel stress, whether acute or chronic, a message is processed by the brain which sends signals to the gut that influences digestion. Stress can cause us to have increased digestive motility, resulting in diarrhea, or have an opposite effect of decreasing motility, causing constipation. 

Is stress bad for the gut? 

Yes! Chronic stress may lead to:

  • Dysbiosis – In your gut, there are trillions of microorganisms that make up your gut microbiome. Your gut is full of bacteria, fungi, and viruses and while this might sound scary, it’s actually a good thing. All of these microorganisms keep your gut healthy but when they’re out of balance, dysbiosis happens. Stress leads to changes in both the numbers and types of gut bacteria. It can trigger blooms of pathogenic bacteria and decrease the diversity of the good bacteria in your gut.  
  • Leaky Gut – This is also known as increased intestinal permeability which is a digestive condition in which bacteria and toxins are able to “leak” through the intestinal wall. 
  • Stressed mind, stressed gut – As discussed in our previous post, the brain and gut are intimately connected and communicate back and forth through a bi-directional pathway called the mind-gut connection. The vagus nerve connects all our digestive organs to our brain, allowing the brain to influence intestinal activities and the microbiome. When our brain is constantly in survival mode, this will lead to poor gut health. 
  • Poor Nutrition – When we’re stressed, priorities like eating right can go down the drain. We look for the quickest and easiest option and overeating and undereating become common habits. Stress can also decrease the digestive process and disrupt absorption of nutrients. 

The long and short-term impacts 

The sad truth is that constant stress can worsen chronic diseases and cause serious illnesses. As a GI doctor, I have seen what stress can do. In addition to increasing the risk of GI disorders like IBS, it can also contribute to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, autoimmune diseases and severe mental illness. 

In the short term, we can often get so used to stress that we don’t notice the warning signs. Make sure to pay close attention to your health and make a change now before you’re facing the long-term consequences. Here are a few short-term effects to keep an eye on: 

  • Headaches 
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle tension
  • Stomach upset
  • Mood changes
  • Irritability or mood swings 
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Over or under eating
Woman Meditating
Mental health and self-care are now more important than ever.

Time for a mental health check-in 

A pandemic, an economic recession and financial instability, poor leadership in some countries, constant influx of bad news, social isolation, loneliness, devastating natural disasters, increased crime, misinformation and human and planetary health instability have put us all at high risk of experiencing mental health issues.

We have all been affected in one way or another and our mental health even more so. In fact, the World Health Organization recently found that the pandemic triggered a 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide.

Mental health and self-care are now more important than ever. Let’s all strive to be mindful of our mental state, check in with our loved ones and prioritize taking care of our mental health.

How can I cope with stress? 

Here’s how to determine when you need to change your stressful lifestyle. Although stress is a part of our daily hectic lives, how you cope with stress is what ultimately sets the tone for health outcomes! There are a lot of coping mechanisms for stress. Here are a few techniques that could help: 

  • Being in nature and getting Vitamin D 
  • Exercising
  • Mindfulness
  • Meditation and deep breathing
  • Listening to music
  • Playing with pets
  • Disconnecting from technology (and occasionally people, if needed!) 
  • Expressive journaling 
  • Even hugs! Ask CNN 
Stress relief with your best friend
Playing with pets can help you cope with your stress!

But, when deep breathing exercises are no longer cutting it and you are overwhelmed with a constant feeling of panic, it’s time to make a serious change! If the career path you’ve chosen or people in your life are consistently bringing you a great deal of anguish, it might be time to explore another path or set boundaries. Only you know what’s going on inside of you. Pay attention to your mind and body and make healthy choices. 

Your life and future depend on it! Check out the services we offer at Planted Forward, where our team of specialists can help you live your best life, holistically. At Planted Forward, we believe that plants are the foundation to healing. 

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