Stress is a health crisis that, over the years, has been more destructive than most. While we may not get the daily reports of casualties, there are undoubtedly a high number of people who are impacted by its health implications. Dealing with your stress is one of the kindest things you can do with your body. One way to approach this health management is to better understand the connection between your mind and your gut and the never-ending cycle of influence between each.
First, we should look at how stress impacts your body and your gut. Then, it is essential to understand how these physical issues exacerbate stress and how control over your lifestyle could create a positive rather than negative cycle.
How does stress impact your body?
When faced with a stressful situation at work, our bodies release hormones that help us deal with the threat. As our brain’s protective systems have not evolved so much from early man, these hormones evoke a fight, flight, or freeze reaction. In short, your body is primed to have a fight or run away with an apex predator.
Cortisol is released to encourage your heart rate and blood pressure to rise, sending blood to the muscles that will help you with your battle. Your muscles will tense as your body is made alert for the action it will take.
Failure to release this cortisol causes quite toxic effects on your body.
How does stress impact your gut?
As the mind and gut are intimately connected, this stress response has an intense impact on your intestine, bowel, and rectum. When you are in heightened stress, these muscles tense too, and blood flows to other parts of the body needed for survival. In short, stress is a destructive force on the gut.
It need not be surprising that you feel much of your intuition in your gut. When you are nervous, you feel butterflies, and when you are scared, you experience nauseousness. Taken to an extreme, stress can cause physiological changes to your gut, including severe inflammation and other gastrointestinal tract illnesses.
This problem becomes cyclical because your diet and intake of nutrients directly impact your mental health. Therefore, people with conditions like irritable bowel system are also prone to anxiety and depression. The mental health concerns then feed into the hormonal changes to the body that exacerbate the gut’s condition.
How can you use this mind-gut connection to your advantage?
Maintaining your gut health is a way to break this negative cycle. Managing what you eat can relieve the symptoms of gastrointestinal problems and provide the nutrients you need to feel mentally stronger.
Therefore, a simple step of eating a more plant-based diet could help your gut. You will consume a diverse amount of microbes that will feed the good bacteria in your stomach. You should also eat probiotic foods, which add more live bacteria to your stomach and can be found in live yoghurts, raw cheese, and fermented foods. You should also increase your fibre intake, eating vegetables, fruit, legumes, and whole grains, and use extra virgin olive oil as your fat of choice.
It is also about moving away from foods that unbalance this system. Highly processed foods may be tasty, but they wreak havoc on your gut health, which in turn will make your stress levels worse.
How can your lifestyle help to control this stress?
You can be more proactive still by making lifestyle choices that break the negative cycle between your mind and gut. For instance, choosing to meditate or practise mindfulness can calm the mind, which will reduce the creation of cortisol. You are using your senses to move your brain from an analytical mode where it intuits a threat to a feeling of being present and grounded. Yoga is an excellent way of doing this, too and offers other physical benefits.
You can also seek to release endorphins and dopamine into your system, both of which literally eat up cortisol. Exercise is one of the most efficient ways of doing this and is why doctors suggest this to manage stress levels.
Finally, you need to get the right amount of sleep. Our mind needs sleep to process our experiences and to recuperate the mind and body. Without this ability to rest, recharge and rebuild, your stress levels will escalate – which in turn will impact your gut – which will cause your stress levels to increase even more.
The important message
Our body and mind are interconnected systems. You cannot hope to look after one without caring for the other. Therefore, taking care of your gut will help you cope with stress. Allowing stress to damage your GI tract will exacerbate negative emotions. Using all the tools available to you to break this cycle will help you cope with work-based stress.