For Stress Awareness Month, we have teamed up with Gastroenterologist Consultant at the London Digestive Centre, Dr Philip Woodland, to give you expert knowledge on how stress can affect the gut and what you can do to keep yours healthy.
When an acutely stressful or harmful situation occurs, the brain stimulates a “stress response”, often showing as an increased heart rate, erratic breathing, increased muscle tension, heightened awareness and over-sweating. This is what primes us for a “flight or fight” response.
This reaction is a natural process that we cannot control — it’s a healthy way for your body to keep you safe when danger is coming. However, this automatic response does mean that issues beyond acute life-threatening situations can occupy our brains and stimulate an unhealthy stress response over a prolonged period of time. This can lead to unpleasant physical as well as psychological symptoms — because stress doesn’t disappear overnight. Longer term issues like heartburn and indigestion, abdominal cramps and pains, bloating, nausea, diarrhoea or constipation will soon manifest.
Consider these four tips for maintaining your gut health during stressful periods and decide what works for you.
Changing your diet isn’t the only way
Having a healthy diet is a positive thing, but be wary that over-analysing your food intake can become stressful in its own way, leaving you stuck between a rock and a hard place — is your stress causing the gut issues, or are the gut issues causing you stress?
- Try this
Kimchi, a delicacy in Korea, is a traditional dish of salted and fermented cabbage and radishes. Its rich fibre content can regulate bowel movements and prevent constipation. You can enjoy kimchi on its own, mixed with brown rice, or in a classic Korean dish called bibimbap. Find a delicious recipe here.
Meditation and yoga
Meditation activates the parasympathetic or “rest and digest” brain response. This can alleviate digestive issues by easing symptoms of IBS, like bloating and constipation. Yoga encourages neurotransmitters in the brain to produce dopamine and gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA is normally used in dietary supplements to boost bowel movement) and helps to regulate hormones in both women and men.
Regular physical exercise
Cardiovascular activities like running, cycling and swimming shift the composition of bacteria in the intestines and raises a person’s core temperature. This reduces blood flow to the intestines, leading to more direct contact between microbes and immune cells in the mucus of the gut. This leaves more room for absorption of nutrients and food to move through the digestive tract.
Talking therapy, counselling or cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT)
In some cases, stress can be more severe and require professional intervention, but realising this can be an important part of the process. Use the above tools to tackle stress head-on and experience improvement in gut function as you manage your stressors. Contact your GP if you’re still struggling with stress after adapting your lifestyle and they can refer you to those who can help.
Probiotics and supplements
Some patients can find probiotics or prebiotics helpful. A trial of these supplements may be beneficial and if successful, they can be continued. However, there is no evidence to suggest they should be continued if they do not help symptoms. Try natural sources before swapping to capsules and powders: flax seeds, broccoli, oats, peas, berries, kimchi, asparagus, leeks and Kombucha.
If you are experiencing severe symptoms such as abdominal pain, significant bleeding or dehydration, seek urgent medical attention.