How Does Stress Affect Gut Health?

Have you ever felt your stomach churn under pressure or faced a sudden bathroom rush before a big meeting or presentation? If these scenarios sound familiar, you’re witnessing the gut-brain connection in action and feeling how stress affects gut health.
High-stress situations activate the sympathetic branch of your central nervous system, more commonly called the “Fight, Flight or Freeze State”. Stress is beneficial in that it helps motivate you to take action and step up to your challenges. Still, if you find yourself stuck in this state, you may find those digestive issues escalating and occurring daily and impacting your quality of life significantly. I experienced this firsthand when I was an IT executive, and the stress of my career triggered a flare-up of Crohn’s disease. Despite being convinced that I could push through the pain, my body slowly shut down, and I had to take a career break.
Suppose you’re navigating a high-stress career, financial pressures, or family challenges and struggling to maintain mental clarity and a healthy functioning gut. In that case, you’ll find this discussion particularly relevant.

Understanding Your Second Brain

The gut-brain axis acts as a two-way communication line between your mind and digestive system, significantly influencing your overall health. Here’s how this matters:

  • We often refer to the gut as the “second brain,” highlighting its importance in our neurological health. Neurotransmitters found and produced in the gut directly influence feelings of sadness or stress, even affecting mental processes like clarity and decision-making.
  • The balance of microbes in your gut can sway everything from your emotional state to your physical health, making it essential to maintain a balanced gut flora. And guess what? Stress upsets the balance!
  • 60-70% of your immune system exists in the walls of your digestive tract, so when your digestion is upset, your immunity is affected.
Nikkie Windsor presenting on how stress affects gut health at the Big Retreat Festival.
Exploring the intricate relationship between stress and the gut with festivalgoers at the recent Big Retreat Festival.

Feeling the Pressure: How Stress Disturbs Digestion

Stress in itself is beneficial to you. The body’s primary stress hormone, cortisol, is an early warning system which alerts the body to danger. For example, cortisol instructs the liver to release glucose into the bloodstream when your blood sugar drops too low to avoid hypoglycemia. This state can result in you passing out, coma and even death. What wakes you up in the morning? That’s right, it’s cortisol! However, when stress becomes chronic, it can create a state of imbalance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, creating a state known as “nervous system dysregulation”. 

Stress doesn’t just keep you on edge; it affects the whole body and can significantly disrupt digestive functions. Here’s how stress may be quietly complicating your life:

  • Reduced Enzyme Production: Under stress, your body produces fewer digestive enzymes, which can affect the breakdown of food. This can lead to bloating, gas, indigestion, nutrient deficiencies and weight loss.
  • Altered Gut Motility: Stress can slow down or speed up food movement through your digestive tract, leading to symptoms like constipation or diarrhoea.
  • Gut Microbiota Imbalance: Chronic stress can disrupt the balance of bacteria in your gut, known as dysbiosis, which can adversely affect nearly every aspect of your health.
  • Sleep Issues: Stress disrupts your sleep, contributing to a vicious cycle of fatigue and irritability that impacts your day-to-day life.

Stress’s Toll on Your Body and Mind:

Chronic stress doesn’t merely disrupt your digestion; it impacts every aspect of your health. It drains your energy, muddles your thinking, weakens your immune system, and amplifies your pain sensitivity. Let’s explore how this pervasive stress manifests across various areas of your health and daily life:

  • Energy Drain: Constant stress might be why you feel perpetually tired, struggling to stay alert and active throughout your day.
  • Mood and Mental Fog: If you’re feeling more irritable or can’t seem to focus, stress might be fogging up your brain.
  • Compromised Immune Function: Ongoing stress can weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to illness and inflammation.
  • Increased Sensitivity to Pain: Muscle tension causes cramps due to tensed and spasming muscles. Bloating can significantly distend the belly, making clothing uncomfortable, and acid reflux can feel like you are having a heart attack.
If chronic stress is impacting your mental health, remember that support is available. Organizations like Blink offer safe and open spaces for professional mental health support, helping you connect with others and reconnect with yourself.

Breathwork: Your Secret Weapon Against Stress

Despite recognising the relationship between the stress of my career and the severity of my symptoms, I spent several years focused on my diet. I figured that I had food intolerances, so I excluded all the typical culprits like gluten and dairy. Plus, I tried many other diets, but none brought me complete relief. Eventually, I had to cast my net wider and started exploring the relationship between stress and gut function.

I trained as a breathwork coach, recognising the need for practical stress management tools. Breathwork can be a powerful ally in managing stress and restoring balance. Here’s how it helps:

  • Vagus Nerve Activation: The vagus nerve acts as a superhighway for communication between the gut and the brain, affecting mood and stress levels. The health of your vagus nerve influences your ability to manage stress and recover from trauma. Simple breathing exercises can stimulate your vagus nerve, promoting relaxation and reducing stress. Like muscles, the vagus nerve has tone; your vagal tone can be trained, enabling you to manage stress more effectively.
  • Enhancing Heart Rate Variability: Regular breathwork can improve your heart’s response to stress, indicating a robust nervous system.
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Nikkie Windsor leading a breathwork session on the beach, demonstrating stress management techniques.

Incorporating Breathwork into Your Daily Routine

Starting with just a few minutes of breathwork daily can significantly impact your health by lowering stress and improving gut function. This practice isn’t just about managing stress—it’s about empowering you to live a more balanced and energetic life. Here are some deep breathing techniques you can try:

  • Diaphragmatic or belly breathing: Take slower, more deliberate breaths from the diaphragm. Try putting a hand on your belly and a hand on your chest. You should feel the hand on your belly move first and the most.
  • 4-4 Breathing: Inhale for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4 and repeat 10 times
  • 4-8 Breathing:  Similar to the 4-4 practice, but extend the exhale for a count of 8 and repeat
  • Box Breathing: Inhale for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 4 and hold for a count of 4 and repeat

Recognising and Managing Stress in the Moment

As we discussed earlier, the connection between your mind and gut is sensitive to the stresses of daily life. Recognising the signs of stress, such as shallow breathing and an anxious mind, is vital as these can directly impact your digestive health. When you notice stress building—perhaps right before a presentation or during a high-pressure moment—take a moment to practice diaphragmatic breathing. This simple technique can be performed anywhere, even at your desk. Try a few rounds of 4-4 or 4-8 breathing to help stabilise your mood and digestive responses.

Diaphragmatic breathing helps stimulate the vagus nerve, promoting relaxation and reducing stress levels. Mindful breathing helps manage immediate stress responses and contributes to long-term gut health by enhancing your resilience to stress.

Ready to Dive Deeper into Managing Your Gut Health?

If you’re struggling with stress and its impact on your gut health, a more personalised approach might be what you need. Therefore, I invite you to book a complimentary “Gut Conversation” with me to explore personalised strategies to manage your digestive health effectively. Together, we can work towards a lifestyle supporting your mental and digestive well-being.

Book Your Free Gut Conversation Here and start taking control of your health journey today!