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Gut health and stress

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Stress can do more than leave you feeling frazzled – it may upset the health of your gut, and that can have a significant knock-on effect for the rest of your health and wellbeing. Learn why, and what to do about it.

Stress and your health

Across the ditch 3 out of 4 Australians say that stress is impacting their health. Here in New Zealand, 60% of us say we are stressed at least once a week. If you’re one of them, you might be familiar with how stress affects things like sleep, memory and wellbeing; even how it may leave you feeling like you’ve got a constant headache. But you may be less familiar with how stress is affecting your gut health – and why it matters.

How your gut reacts to stress

On the surface, you probably already know that stress can cause stomach upset and diarrhoea , but it’s how stress impacts your gut’s population of microbiota, or bacteria, that’s the really important thing.

While research shows that when you’re stress free, gut bacteria produce short-chain fatty acids that help protect the bowel and have an anti-inflammatory effect, it’s a different story when you’re stressed.

When you’re stressed, your gut barrier can become weakened , perhaps due to a lack of butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid that helps ensure the strength and integrity of the gut wall.

This can bump up your risk of experiencing what’s called ‘increased intestinal permeability’, otherwise known as leaky gut, where it’s thought that bacteria may escape the gut lining and enter the bloodstream, a situation that can impact your wellbeing.

But certain gut bacteria also produce neurotransmitters. In fact, a healthy gut contains around 25 different types of neurotransmitters, and research suggests that stress upsets the production and regulation of those, too.

How stress levels are affected by your gut

Once those neurotransmitters that are living in your gut become upset and unbalanced, it can create a ‘stress loop’, so that your stress levels might climb even higher.

To understand why, to start with, it helps to know that in the same way your gut reacts to messages it receives from your brain  – which explains why you might experience an upset stomach when you’re stressed – the messages flow the other way, too. Your gut neurotransmitters talk to and influence your brain.

It also pays to know that some of the neurotransmitters specific gut bacteria can produce, including serotonin  and GABA , play a key role in regulating mood  as well as symptoms of stress.

And, according to a study published in early 2019, there’s a link between the presence or absence of key gut bacteria and the likelihood of experiencing stress-related symptoms, suggesting that gut health affects stress levels, just like stress impacts gut health. 

How to manage stress and support your gut health

Thanks to the two-way nature of the relationship between stress and gut health, it’s a good idea to tackle the situation from both angles. In other words, do what you can to lower your stress levels, as well as making a conscious effort to improve your gut health.

The good news is there are a couple of strategies that work on both things at once. For example, doing some regular exercise helps to reduce stress  and  increases your gut’s population of ‘good’ bacteria , as well. Likewise, sleep impacts both stress levels  and gut health.