Stress induced by work, family or difficult situations can be exhausting but did you know stress can cause more problems besides a rough day? Stress causes cortisol dysregulation which can result in weight gain, sleep disturbances, and even a reduction in life span. Understanding how stress impacts your gut function is the first step to healing your gut. Learn details of how stress wreaks havoc on your gut below.
The biochemical changes that occur in times of stress have significant and immediate impact on gut function.
A family of peptides called corticotrophin releasing factors (CRF) are responsible for coordinating the body’s response to stress, and CRFs have a potent effects on the gut through modulation of inflammation, increase of gut permeability, contribution to visceral hypersensitivity, increased perception to pain, and modulation of the gut motility. (5) This hormone affects the hypothalamic-pituitary axis (HPA) to eventually stimulate the secretion of cortisol from the adrenal glands.
Not only does stress affect the physiological function of the gut, but it has also been shown to actually cause changes in the composition of the microbiota, possibly due to the changes in neurotransmitter and inflammatory cytokine levels. (6) Research in mice has found that exposure to stress led to an overgrowth of certain types of bacteria while simultaneously reducing microbial diversity in the large intestine of the stressed mice. (7, 8) Furthermore, this disruption of the microbiota increased susceptibility to enteric pathogens.
Chronic exposure to stress may lead to the development of a variety of gastrointestinal diseases such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), peptic ulcer disease, IBD, IBS, and even food allergies. (9) Experimental studies have shown that psychological stress slows normal small intestinal transit time, encourages overgrowth of bacteria, and even compromises the intestinal barrier. (10) Chronic stress may therefore play an important role in the development of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) and leaky gut syndrome.
The Gut-Brain-Skin Axis plays an important role in our overall health.
Another fascinating line of research that dates back to the 1930s is the relationship between skin, gut, and mental health. I recently recorded a podcast in which I discussed the role that gut health plays in the development of acne, and research suggests that chronic stress may also play an integral part in the gut-skin axis. (11) Stress-induced alterations to microbial flora could increase the likelihood of intestinal permeability, which in turn sets the stage for systemic and local skin inflammation. (12) When gut integrity is compromised, an increase in circulating endotoxins derived from gut microbes can manifest as skin eruptions such as rosacea and acne.
On the flip side, having a healthy gut flora can modulate the hypersensitivity and leaky gut permeability that comes from chronic exposure to stress. Consuming probiotic foods and/or supplements might influence both mood and acne, by reducing systemic inflammatory cytokines and oxidative stress, increasing peripheral tryptophan levels, normalizing brain levels of stress hormones, modulating tissue lipid levels, and possibly even regulating glycemic control. (13, 14, 15, 16, 17)
Recently, research has demonstrated significant improvements in depression, anger, anxiety, as well as lower levels of cortisol among otherwise healthy adults taking a daily probiotic supplement as compared to a placebo. (18) This data suggests that not only can chronic stress change the diversity of microflora in the gut, but that the quality and health of friendly gut bacteria may also conversely have an effect on mental health and wellbeing.
As we continue to learn more about the intricacies of the interplay between stress and gut health, what steps can we take in our daily lives to help minimize the health damage that arises from chronic stress?
One interesting method of treatment that researchers used in the 1930s to treat acne and mood disorders was the combination of “an acidophilus milk preparation and cod liver oil”, which we now know provided patients high levels of probiotics, omega-3 fatty acids, and fat soluble vitamins A and D. (19) Healing the gut, reducing inflammation, and providing a diverse array of friendly bacteria can make a big difference in your gut’s susceptibility to the negative effects of stress. Taking cod liver oil and probiotics on a regular basis may make a significant difference in your overall resilience to stress.
Dr. Della treats all types of conditions, but has a special interest in digestive problems, chronic fatigue, and adrenal fatigue. As a Naturopathic Doctor, her license allows her to prescribe pharmaceuticals, as well as help patients wean off of them. The model of holistic health looks at the whole body not just isolated symptoms. Contact Dr. Della Parker if you’re seeking a holistic approach for optimal health.