Stress and Your Gut – How to Manage
In our last post, Your Low Fodmap Diet Guide (Everything you need to know!), we mentioned how there is so much more to your unpleasant digestive symptoms than food.
One of the biggest culprits triggering your symptoms and worsening your gut health is stress.
This may not come as a surprise. I’m sure you’ve heard your doctor ask you about stress in appointments over the years. And perhaps you felt that their inquiries were dismissive of your legitimate symptoms.
But did you know that psychological stress can take form as actual physical symptoms in the gut Bloating, gas, diarrhea and constipation can be worsened or even caused by poor stress management.
This is a topic that I am so passionate about and looking forward to sharing with you. Because the great news is, this is something that can be managed! In this post, we will cover how stress may be causing your tummy troubles and some strategies to fix it.
Stress is the new normal
I want to start by saying that I understand you are busy.
I am a mom of two, a wife and a full-time entrepreneur… I GET IT! There is no avoiding the meetings, deadlines, soccer practices, grocery shopping and just general craziness that is modern life.
We cannot always eliminate stress and I won’t ask you to.
What I will ask is for you to put your health first. As someone with IBS or IBD, you have even more stress to manage as you seek answers to your diagnosis and attempt to get your symptoms under control.
If you can commit to even a few small changes each day, you can have a huge impact on how stress affects your daily life. With just a little time and effort, you will have the capacity to feel like your best self.
Now, let’s dive in!
How does stress affect digestion?
Stress affects the gut in two main ways.
- Changes in digestive function
As we become stressed, worried or anxious, our body releases hormones in a “fight or flight” response. These hormones surge throughout our bodies to redirect blood away from the digestive system and into the heart, brain and skeletal muscles in an attempt to fight off the stressor. Your body focuses less on proper digestion and the result is uncomfortable symptoms that last well beyond the stressful moment.
- Changes in gut bacteria
The World Journal of Gastroenterology states that poor stress management also results in long-term changes to gut bacteria. These changes can further interfere with the function of your digestive system and hinder the gut-brain axis.
This idea of a “gut-brain axis” is rapidly emerging in new research. It is a well-documented phenomenon but it’s not yet fully understood.
Current research strongly suggests that there is a link between the brain, the nervous system and gut function. This means that your emotions and thoughts can have a real and significant impact on how you digest food, what symptoms you experience and how those symptoms feel in your body.
What can you do?
The gut-brain axis suggests that stress and negative emotions can create and worsen uncomfortable symptoms.
But this also means that our thoughts and emotions can help us heal! Those same mechanisms that cause you physical distress can help you manage, or even eliminate, the persistent discomfort of IBS and IBD.
With just a few simple strategies, you can use the gut-brain axis to your advantage.
Take a breath: One strategy that we discuss a lot in the Clairity program is breathing… Properly! It is so quick and simple, but it’s truly one of the most effective ways to relieve stress or tension. Here is a great exercise for beginners:
Sit in a quiet and comfortable spot.
Place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest.
Block out the noises and distractions around you. Focus inward as you slowly breathe in and out.
Adjust your breathing. If the hand on your chest is rising, you are breathing too shallowly. Try deep breathing into you diaphragm. You should feel the hand on your belly rise and fall with each breath.
Repeat deep breaths for 3-5 minutes.
Relax your muscles: Progressive Muscle Relaxation is a more advanced technique that involves systematically tensing and releasing muscles. You work through different muscle groups throughout the body to relieve tightness and achieve deep relaxation. There are lots of guided exercises available online, so I suggest you do some research until you find one that feels right for you.
Prioritize exercise: Engaging in physical activity on a regular basis improves mood, increases confidence, and decreases stress and anxiety. It can be beneficial for anyone, but especially for those with IBS or IBD. You may already know that exercise produces mood-boosting endorphins, but it also reduces the production of stress hormones. Remember, reduced stress means reduced symptoms.
I promise, you don’t need to commit excessive time or energy to reap the reward of physical activity. The general recommendation is 150 minutes of moderate to intense exercise per week (that’s just 30 minutes each day). This can include walking, running, swimming, dancing, playing tennis, biking, jumping rope… even daily chores! I encourage you to find a form of movement that you enjoy. Something that is accessible and enjoyable to you is all you need.
Psychological therapies: For many Clairity participants, psychological therapies are extremely beneficial for symptom management. This can be as simple as incorporating mindfulness techniques in day-to-day life, or for many, this means working with a professional to implement strategies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or Hypnotherapy.
Psychological therapies help you change and manage dysfunctional thoughts that negatively affect your emotional well-being. Each specific therapy utilizes a different framework, but they all work toward a common goal: relieving anxieties and improving your ability to manage what life throws at you.
What can you do NOW?
Managing symptoms of IBS and IBD can be complicated. For most people, relief will only be achieved through an integrated approach that deals with the dietary and psychological triggers.
But don’t give up.
Pick one of the strategies in this post (breathing exercises are a great place to start!) and practice for 5 minutes. Do this every day for one week and notice the effects on your mood and physical symptoms.
From there, you can move on to more advanced stress management techniques and dietary interventions.
Have your symptoms taken over your life?
It’s time you get them under control. You deserve a life that you enjoy, not one that keeps you chained to the toilet.
I know it can be tough. I have BEEN THERE.
But our program is based in research. We will guide you through all of the available information and techniques until you are feeling comfortable and confident. We will teach you how to get rid of symptoms and how to keep them away for life.
Wishing you well, always,
Stephanie Clairmont, MHSc, RD