Stress is a normal part of life and occurs whenever your brain and body have to respond to a demand such as an intense strength-training session or studying to pass an important exam. Stress can also be caused by traumatic events or when you experience negative life changes like the death of a loved one, ending a relationship, or losing your job. Irritability, sadness, and the inability to fall and stay asleep are a few indicators you're experiencing stress, and research has also shown that stress negatively impacts your gut health, which can cause a variety of digestive issues.
"There's definitely a connection between the brain and the gut, and we call that the gut-brain axis," Roshini Rajapaksa, MD, a board-certified gastroenterologist and clinical associate professor at NYU Langone, told POPSUGAR. The gut-brain axis is complex but ultimately involves the communication between the central and enteric nervous system (the intrinsic nervous system of the gastrointestinal tract) that links the cognitive and emotional centers of your brain to your intestinal functions.
How Emotions Like Stress and Anxiety Influence Gut Health
The gut-brain axis is regulated by the gut's microbiome, a community made up of a majority of bacteria that live in your gut and play an important role in your digestive and overall bodily functions, according to Dr. Rajapaksa. The gut microbiome helps your body digest foods and reduces inflammation by keeping the lining of the intestine intact and strong, making it harder for toxins to leak into the bloodstream and trigger inflammation.
Hormones such as serotonin and tryptophan are secreted by the gut and are the same as some of the neurotransmitters in the brain, which regulate psychological states like anxiety, stress, and depression. Furthermore, alterations of the microbiome can affect weight gain and obesity, allergies, heart disease, autoimmune diseases, and mental health, according to Dr. Rajapaksa. "We're learning every day how important gut health is in more and more fields of medicine," she said.
The vagus nerve — which runs from your brain, through your face, down to the abdomen — connects your gut and brain and is responsible for feelings like butterflies in your stomach when you're nervous, which Dr. Rajapaksa said is a minor, yet clear, example of how stress can affect the gut. This connection is heightened in those who experience irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), especially whenever they have to do something that provokes anxiety. Because this connection is heightened in those with IBS, it can result in physiological responses like diarrhea, she added. When treating IBS, Dr. Rajapaksa said small doses of antidepressants used to reduce anxiety have been shown to help because the smaller dose is still able to modulate neurotransmitters in both the brain and gut.
Why Probiotic-Rich Foods Are Beneficial to Gut Health
Yes, emotions like stress and anxiety can wreak havoc on your gut health if they go unmanaged, but there are simple ways to start improving your gut health today. Dr. Rajapaksa explained that it's important to have a diversity of gut bacteria for optimal functioning and optimal health. To achieve optimal gut health, she recommends incorporating a mixture of probiotic-rich foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt with active cultures, miso, kefir, and tempeh into your diet.
"While supplements can be useful, rather than just taking a supplement of one particular strain, often in food you're getting more of a variety and that's important," she explained. Aging, pregnancy, menopause, travel, antibiotics, lifestyle, and diet all affect your gut microbiome, and because of this, Dr. Rajapaksa also recommends consuming prebiotics, like fibrous fruits and vegetables, as they feed and foster a healthy gut microbiome.
Signs and Symptoms of Gut Disorders and When to Seek Help
If you aren't sure whether you ate something that your stomach didn't agree with or something more serious is happening with your gut, general symptoms to look out for are: pain that prohibits exercise, constant stomach rumbling, and any digestive issues that make you want to skip out on everyday activities. Be sure to pay attention to when you experience these symptoms, especially if you're stressed, because a doctor can help you implement relaxation strategies and prescribe medication to help ease your symptoms.
If you experience symptoms such as new discomfort in your abdomen, blood in your stool, unexplained weight loss, severe pain, or an abrupt change in your bowel habits (the shape and frequency, for example) these are all indicators of something more serious and a sign you should seek medical attention.
Ways to Improve Your Gut Health
Whether or not you're currently exhibiting gut discomfort, it's always recommended you adopt practices to help you improve your gut health. "I recommend to my patients to do things like yoga, meditation, deep breathing exercises, and acupuncture. I think those are great first steps," Dr. Rajapaksa said. New research has focused on the connection between exercise, the microbiome, and gut health, and Dr. Rajapaksa said that in addition to helping improve your mood, exercise can also improve your gut health.