What’s the connection between mental health & digestive health?

stress digestive health

You bolt out of bed, thinking you’re about to be attacked by a blood-thirsty, ravenous, sabre-tooth freaking tiger. No, no tiger – just your alarm.

Now that you’re suitably startled, you reach for your phone to silence the siren, and you start scrolling. You’re just onto your third Facebook post ‘like’ and the “URGENT” emails begin flying in. That’s it! Absolutely no time for brek now – a cup of coffee’ll have to do as you race out the door, tripping over undone laces whilst simultaneously brushing some measly mascara across your lashes.

You then sardine-squish yourself into the fourth tube that pulls in, crossing all personal-space boundaries as you tuck your head under the armpit of THAT guy – the one who ate a field of garlic for dinner. Oh – the delight of London commuting.

You get into work, it’s all go. The hustle – it’s happening. Phone calls. Deadlines. Raging bosses wanting the report they’ve just requested written by YESTERDAY ALREADY. You’re lucky if you even get half a minute for a breath, let alone for lunch. Nothing eases in the afternoon.

And by the time you make it out the office door that evening, you’re a flat tyre. Bar your tummy: that’s anything BUT flat – it’s bloated like a puffed up pufferfish. It’s bloody sore too. But you promised the girls you’d meet for drinks – they’ll think you’re *so* lame if you let them down again.

After your fair share of cocktails, you finally flop onto your half-made bed at 11.37pm. And then your boyfriend starts banging on about sex. Ha! Sex! You’re exhausted! And besides your ever-growing-blowfish-bloated-belly is most certainly not sexy.

But despite the tiredness, your mind won’t switch off – thoughts racing all over the shop like a circus-cymbal-playing-monkey. Clang. Clang. Clang. When you eventually do get some shut eye, you dream that your alarm actually morphs into that sabre-tooth tiger and devours you whole because this life thing? It feels really relentless.

But before we go dreaming about quite such drastic measures, can we just take stock? And chat about stress.

Because stress isn’t just a feeling, something that’s ‘all in your head.’ Stress is an actual response. A broad, physiological definition of stress is any real or perceived “external or internal condition that challenges the homeostasis of a cell or organism.” Basically our bodies are all about balance, and because of that there are all kinds of clever mechanisms in place to ensure that that balance is maintained. So when stress disrupts things, an adaptive response is triggered with the aim of maintaining internal stability and ultimately allowing for survival.

What’s involved in this whole stress response then?

Well, when we’re talking mental & emotional stress, it starts in the limbic system – a part of the brain responsible for emotions & arousal. So when you see, think about or experience something stressful (a ginormous dog that’s as big as a bear; cray cray traffic; an overflowing tube platform; Oxford Street on a Saturday; your mother-in-law; those ‘URGENT’ emails; a loud bang that scares the bejaysus out of you), the limbic system sends a really fast electrical connection down the spinal cord and out through the nerves that feed certain organs. This is the activation of the sympathetic nervous system or the ‘fight or flight’ response – and it happens immediately.

The main aim of the game here? To provide energy to fight or flee the given real or perceived stressor by increasing circulating glucose & oxygen around the body.

This is all done by:

  • causing the pupils & airways to dilate
  • increasing heart rate & blood pressure
  • increasing blood flow to the skeletal muscles
  • causing the liver to release stored glucose (glycogen) & the kidneys to reabsorb more water so as to increase blood volume & pressure
  • causing the inner layer (the medulla) of the adrenal glands (which are perched on top of the kidneys) to release adrenaline
  • inhibiting the digestive system (Remember that time when you were about to do a bit of public speaking and your mouth dried up, you felt like there was a forest fire inside your chest or you got the whistle belly thumps?)

So all of this is immediate (literally happens within seconds). BOO! See?

But there’s another response. A secondary, slightly slower response which happens about a minute later. This is where the part of the brain, called the hypothalamus, speaks to the pituitary gland via a hormone called CRH. The pituitary gland, via another hormone ACRH, then acts on the outer layer (the cortex) of the adrenal gland and causes it to release cortisol.

Cortisol’s primary role? To raise blood sugar levels. It also helps adrenaline work more efficiently.

All sounds pretty spectacular so what’s the actual big deal with stress?

Look, short term, we’re all about this. Heck, if I ended up in a situation where I had to side-step a stressor for my survival, I’d be able to do so thanks to this response.

But these days, we’re fighting and fleeing from friggin emails. And traffic. And tube journeys. And bitchy bosses or crappy colleagues. Unlike encounters with sabre-tooth tigers that would happen only occasionally back when we were hanging out in caves, this happens every.single.day. So we then have high cortisol, not for a short period of time, but pretty much all the time.

This may then lead to a whole host of problems including:

  • an increase in appetite & cravings (to help to increase blood sugar)
  • a decrease in muscle mass
  • an increase in visceral fat which then contributes to inflammation
  • a decrease bone formation
  • a decrease in secretory IgA (the body’s first primary defence against unwanted pathogens thereby increasing the risk of infection and inflammation, further triggering the stress response)
  • suppression of the pituitary gland thereby affecting thyroid, sex & growth hormones (besides exhaustion & unsexy bloated belly, another reason why you’re wanting to keep your clothes on: stress beats sex every time)
  • a decrease in melatonin, resulting in poor sleep
  • negatively impacts the immune system
  • impacting the thyroid gland by decreasing TSH production and interfering with the conversion of T4 to the more active T3

But remember how we said that stress shuts off digestion? Well, that’s what I really want to focus on – the link between stress and that blowfish belly (or overall gut health).

And before we go any further, let’s appreciate that this is a two way street: stress leads to negative changes in the gut and poor gut health exacerbates stress.

So let’s begin by Discussing Dysbiosis & Stress

Dysbiosis: a fancy way of saying that there’s a relative load of too many of the bad bugs (or bacteria) coupled with not enough of the good guys (or beneficial bacteria). This imbalance, which can be caused by stress, is associated with a whole heap of conditions from IBS & Crohn’s to acne and even fatty liver disease. But it doesn’t stop there: stress has also been linked to a reduced microbial diversity in the gut which then increases the chances of becoming overweight (or as I like to say: a badass babe who’s all about the base) and having allergies.

Moving on to Mast Cells & Stress

You may have heard about mast cells – they’re the ones that release histamine (amongst other things) when they become unstable or ‘degranulate’, resulting in runny noses and watery eyes. (Always a winner when you’re not wearing waterproof mascara.) Back to the mast cells – research indicates that mast cells play a really important role when it comes to stress and the integrity of the gut lining. Translation: the gut acts as a barrier, keeping out stuff (toxins, large food particles, bugs) that’s not supposed to enter into the body – think of it like a sieve. But stress can activate mast cells, and be one of the reasons why that sieve breaks. We’re now talking increased risk of infection, heightened immune responses and inflammation.

Finishing off with Pain & Stress

So the normal response to acute stress is an increased pain threshold – let’s be for reals: if you were running away from a robber and you happened to stand on a sharp shard of glass, you’d probably continue running and barely even notice. But it’s been shown that people struggling with gut disorders experience an enhanced perception of pain (or visceral hypersensitivity, if we’re going to get technical) – so they have a lower pain threshold. And they’d most likely notice that sharp shard. Also, people with gut conditions have been shown to exhibit even more digestive systems when under mental stress and anxiety. The vicious circle rages.

So what’s a stressed out badass babe to do?

To know that there’s a heap of hope! And the best starting point is always with the small stuff. So let’s get back to some basics.

Change your Alarm

Stop giving yourself heart failure every morning – there’s no worse way to wake up than with the sound of what may as well be a squawking parrot screaming for its life. Choose a tune that’s more mellow. Business Insider UK & Spotify might be able to help you out with some options. (There’s even some science behind these suggestions.)

Stop Scrolling

Just do it. Try it for a week – no social media until after breakfast. Because what a way to start your day: comparing your life to that of your high school buddy (who you haven’t seen for, ahem, 13 years). You’re not her. So why not get on with being gorgeously, gloriously YOU.

Make Time for Meditation

I’ve shouted it from the roof tops before, and I’ll do it again: meditation is key. Even if you’re not the meditating type, please – just give it a go for at least 30 days: push through what may feel icky & pointless. And, most importantly, do what works for you – it could be anything from 10 mindful minutes of Headspace to 4 life changing minutes with Rebekah Borucki. There’s loads of research backing up the positive impact of mediation on stress, anxiety, sleep & cognition so surely, it’s worthwhile giving a proper go? And, you might even find that you enjoy living a bit more.

Change Jobs

I’m serious. If your job is so stressful, or you’re putting so much pressure on yourself, that you’re compromising your health to this extent (giving yourself the shits), there’s no shame in quitting. It does not mean you’re a failure. It means you’ve come to value your health and belief in the beautiful possibility of a better quality of life. Because you can eat the most ‘perfect’ food, pop tip top quality supplements & banish those gut bugs but they ain’t going to touch sides if you’re still stressed AF thanks to work. So just consider what quitting would feel like? Do you get the excited-butterflies in your tummy? Then maybe give this some more thought.

Factor in Certain Foods & Supplements

Keep it simple. Focus on single-ingredient, unprocessed, anti-inflammatory foods, including things like turmeric milk & bone broths into your diet. During times of stress, extra B vitamins are needed as the body uses more of them. Together with the guidance of a healthcare professional, consider adaptogenic herbs (or ‘nature’s fatigue fighters’ as a colleague calls them). Although not to be used long term, they can better help the body cope with periods of stress.

Deal with Other Stressors

Bad bugs, toxins, certain cosmetics & cleaning products – these can all compromise the integrity of your gut and effectively cause stress. But as I said above, if the mental & emotional component of stress is still out of whack, we’re only going to get so far.

Seek Support

Sometimes life does feel really relentless. And sometimes it’s really tricky to figure out what’s going on. But if you’re a badass babe looking to break your chains with your bloated belly and get your life back? My door is open. Let’s chat.

pcos nutritionist lara rickard
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