How Does Stress Impact Gut Health?

How Does Stress Impact Gut Health?

Have you ever noticed that when you get stressed, your digestive health is affected?

We often experience a “gut feeling” or get “butterflies” in our stomach before an exam or a big day, and the gut is referred to as the “second brain”. This is because the gut has a nervous system with more neurotransmitters than the brain’s central nervous system!

The gut and the brain are connected through what is known as the gut-brain axis, which is a two-way communication system. Physical connections include nerves, such as the vagus nerve, while chemical connections include neurotransmitters, such as serotonin. Serotonin is known as the “happy hormone”, with over 90% of our serotonin being produced in the gut – which is one of the reasons that if our gut is compromised, this can affect our mood.


Deep diaphragmatic breathing for your gut

When we feel stressed, our brain activates the sympathetic nervous system, also known as “flight-or-fight”. This prepares the body to protect itself against danger, and so our digestive system shuts down as it is not needed for immediate survival.

Diaphragmatic breathing is a simple technique that can help reduce our stress levels and bring the body out of fight-or-flight, and into rest-and-digest (the parasympathetic nervous system). When we breathe in this way, our stomach expands with each inhale and contracts with each exhale. By activating the diaphragm, this “massages” our stomach and intestines, and so it can help minimise digestive symptoms such as abdominal pain and bloating.


Mindfulness & mindful eating

Practicing mindfulness and meditation also activates the rest-and-digest response. A study of Buddhist monks found that meditation could help regulate the gut microbiome and also reduce the risk of anxiety and depression.

By reducing our stress levels, we are encouraging good gut health. As well as meditation, mindful eating habits can help promote a relaxed state at mealtimes, which in turn can have a positive impact on both stress and digestion. To practice mindful eating, slow down, chew your food well and engage all your senses, tuning into the tastes, aromas and textures of what you’re eating.


Low impact exercise for stress relief

Low impact exercise, such as walking, yoga, pilates, swimming and tai chi, is a great way to exercise without putting mental or physical stress on your body. You don’t need to pay to join a gym or attend an expensive class – even doing a yoga or pilates video at home on YouTube can be an easy remedy for relieving stress and quietening your mind while building strength at the same time. Exercise reduces stress hormones and stimulates the production of endorphins – which make us feel good!


Get enough rest to relieve stress

One of the best ways to reduce stress levels is by improving both the quality and quantity of the sleep we are getting. When we are sleep-deprived, this raises our cortisol levels (the stress hormone), so we should be aiming for between seven to nine hours of sleep every night in order to keep stress hormones at bay.

To help optimise the quality of our sleep, cut back on caffeine, especially after lunchtime as it stays in our system for many hours. Get sunlight in your eyes first thing in the morning to help reset your circadian rhythm (natural body clock) and avoid screens for at least an hour before bedtime to allow you to wind down.


Consider probiotics to replenish your gut 

The gut microbiome is the collection of trillions of bacteria, fungi and viruses that live inside your gut. Recent research suggests that the gut microbiome plays a role in the gut-brain axis, and it has even become known as the microbiota-gut-brain axis.

One way that the gut microbiota communicate with the brain is through neurotransmitters and metabolites produced by the gut microbiome, which communicate with the brain via the vagus nerve. Research is still emerging on the exact mechanisms of communication.

One way we can replenish the bacteria in our gut is by eating fermented foods (which contain good bacteria) such as sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh and live yoghurt. Another way is to take probiotic supplements, which can be helpful in certain individuals – read Everything You Need To Know About Probiotics and What’s The Difference Between Probiotics and Prebiotics?



The impact of stress on the gut can be explained by the gut-brain axis. We all experience stress sometimes, and it is common to experience digestive problems during these periods. While some stress is inevitable, we can use tools such as those described above to help mitigate the negative effects that stress can have on our gut health.


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