A gut feeling. A visceral reaction. A knot in the pit of your stomach. Our language is filled with all kinds of adages that speak to what humans have known for millennia: That the connection between the gut, brain, and emotions is immediate and profound.
And nowhere is this more evident than in the vicious cycle of stress and poor gut health. But what, exactly, is the relationship between gut health and stress?
The Second Brain
Practitioners of Eastern and Western medicine alike have long understood the strong connection between emotions and the human digestive system. In recent decades, however, that connection has been confirmed through the discovery of the enteric nervous system (ENS).
The ENS operates through many of the same mechanisms as the central nervous system (CNS) and, as such, it constitutes a direct pathway between the brain and the gut. And that’s why, when your emotions are triggered, you probably feel it first not in your heart or your mind, but in your gut.
Why It Matters
Recognizing how strong the connection between the mind and the gut can be is more than an academic exercise. It’s also imperative to your overall physical, mental, and emotional health.
For example, one of the most common chronic conditions of the digestive system is gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
. GERD is generally caused by anatomical changes within the digestive system that cause stomach acids to back up into the esophagus, causing not only extreme discomfort but also putting patients at risk for life-threatening bleeding and the formation of malignancies in the digestive tract.
Unfortunately, GERD illustrates exactly the vicious cycle that too often exists between stress and gut health. When you are experiencing stress or anxiety, your body produces excessive amounts of stomach acid, which then backs up into the esophagus. Over time, exposure to these acids damages the esophagus and impairs the functioning of the esophageal valve
This leads to even more acid being refluxed up into the esophagus, which in turn causes pain and difficulty eating. This adds to the patient’s stress, which then continues the cycle of excess stomach acid production and GERD symptoms.
The Effects on Hormones
Your gut health doesn’t just impact your digestive system, however. In fact, the ENS, like the CNS, also plays a key role in the production, circulation, and regulation of hormones. And, perhaps surprisingly, one of the hormones most affected by the gut is testosterone.
That’s important because, in men and women alike, low testosterone levels can have a profoundly detrimental effect on physical and psychological well-being. When it comes to the connection between stress and gut health, for example, the impact on testosterone levels is especially significant.
When your testosterone levels are low
, you will experience fatigue, low mood, and irritability. And that means you’re going to feel more stressed, which will in turn detrimentally affect your gut. Thus, the cycle continues.
Breaking the Cycle
As strong as the connection between your digestive health and stress may be, there is good news It’s possible to break the cycle through both mindfulness and mindful eating.
Indeed, one of your most powerful tools for getting ahead of this vicious cycle is nutrition. Because stress harms your gut health, you will want to focus on foods that nourish your brain
, helping it to produce fewer stress hormones, such as cortisol, and more healthful neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin.
In addition, mindful eating
involves changing your relationship to food. More specifically, the goal of mindful eating is to nourish the body without fear or judgment. Anyone who has ever been on a diet, and, let’s face it, that’s most of us, knows that food can be a tremendous source of anxiety.
But learning to eat mindfully means letting go of worry and self-recrimination when it comes to food. When you do that, you’re also inevitably reducing your stress levels and, in the process, supporting your gut health.
In addition to choosing brain-building and stress-reducing foods and breaking the association between food and anxiety, there are also other important ways to manage the stress in your life. It begins with understanding where the sources of your anxiety lie and then acting in ways that calm, nourish, and replenish you in both mind and body.
This may mean canceling the day’s schedule and resting
, or it may mean getting out and getting active. What matters is that you do what is best for you so that you can care for yourself in mind, spirit, and gut.
Anyone who has been paying attention knows that the link between your mind and your gut is strong. The cycle of poor gut health and stress can be especially detrimental to your physical and mental wellbeing. But it is possible to break the chain through mindfulness of what you eat, what you do, and how you feel.