If you’ve ever wondered whether your emotions can effect your digestion (and your peace of mind), just recollect the last time you felt “butterflies in your stomach” before a big event or felt sick to your stomach after spending an afternoon with one of your “Xs”. It’s fairly obvious that there is definitely a brain-gut connection going on.
But what about long-term emotional stress and it’s role in gut health. What do your emotions and stress really do to you on the inside? Because truly knowing THAT can help you connect-the-dots around your health challenges and getting a better handle on root causes.
Catabolic vs. Anabolic Body States
Your body lives in a constant state of what is called “homeostasis”. This is your body’s ability to maintain a relatively stable metabolism and keep “all the lights on” despite an environment of constant change. In order to maintain this balance, your body is engaged in a never-ending dance between two metabolic processes called anabolism and catabolism.
Anabolism is a metabolic process that uses energy to build something the body needs like turning amino acids into proteins and converting glucose to glycogen to be stored for later use (when you need energy). On the other hand, catabolism is all about breaking down things in the body, which releases energy that can be readily used elsewhere; examples of this are proteins breaking down to glucose and triglycerides becoming fatty acids.
Think of it this way. Consider the types of exercise you might do, those that are anaerobic in nature like running and cycling that generally build muscle mass are anabolic and exercises that are usually aerobic and good at burning fat and calories like power walking and low-impact fitness routines are catabolic.
So how do your emotions come into play with regards to your metabolic state?
When you are stressed and in an emotional state, your body flips into a catabolic state… meaning you start breaking things down. In the exercise example above, this means that you are breaking down muscle tissue and losing lean body mass. BUT there is another tissue in the body that emotional stress can impact… and that’s your gut lining.
Wearing Down the Cheesecloth
I’ve talked frequently about how important it is to maintain the integrity of your intestinal gut lining. In particular I’m referring to the small intestine, which is where your food digestion and majority of assimilation really takes place and where over 70% of your immune system resides.
Think of your small intestine as a long tube (actually it is about 20-25 feet long when stretched end to end) that is made up connective tissue. It’s kind of like a big cheesecloth that lets some things pass through but more importantly, holds onto the big stuff.
When you are emotionally stressed, you go into “fight or flight” mode, which causes hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to be released. The reason your body does this is to help you “run from the hungry tiger that is chasing you” and it’s key that your body make energy and get this flowing to your arms, legs, heart and brain as quickly as possible. Elevated cortisol over the long-term can be toxic to your body, leading to increased blood sugar, rapid weight gain, and even create long-lasting brain changes.
In the flight or fight mode, your body is getting energy from glucose, but surprisingly there is another way your body can get the energy it needs… and that is by breaking down the amino acids found in your gut lining and convert these to energy.
So the more stressed you are, the more catabolic you become, and the more gut lining you potentially break down. Eventually too much stress can disrupt the gut barrier integrity enough to create a condition called “leaky gut”. This means that you don’t have to have a food reactivity, have taken antibiotics, or have bacterial overgrowth or a parasite. You can have a leaky gut solely from mental and emotional stress.
Impacts to the Gut Microbiome
Your gut microbiome responds in kind to surrounding biological “disruptors” such as stress, inflammation, hormone imbalances, etc. If your gut microbes live in a hostile environment or a neighbourhood that is run down or not cared for, chances are they won’t take kindly to the “management” (if you get my meaning).
Researchers found that when you are under stress, your microbiome communities become confused and behave in abnormal ways that are unpredictable and vary from person to person.1 Microbiome changes triggered by emotions and other stressful events, cause your gut microbiota to flip from a stable “symbiotic” state to an unstable “dysbiotic” state. Remember these gut microbiota and the balance of the internal floral environment, often play important roles in normal body function and susceptibility to diseases and health conditions of all kinds.
Another important piece of the brain-gut connection is the realization that the vagus nerve, which is one of the largest nerves in your body, running from the brain all the way down to the gut, plays a pivotal role in the “bidirectional” communication between your brain, gut, and microbiota. So your vagus nerve sends messages about your thoughts and emotions from the top-down (brain to gut) and also receives messages like anxiety, fear, and anger from the bottom-up (gut to brain).
I always like to remember this aphorism… as above, so below! What happens in your brain, affects your gut (in more ways than you can imagine).
How Emotions Impact “Other” Tissues
Not to switch gears too much from your gut lining, but other tissues in your body are very sensitive to chronic stress. Some that come to mind are joint, endocrine, and nerve tissue. This would mean that conditions like arthritis, fibromyalgia, Graves, and neurological diseases like depression and even Alzheimer’s, indeed have some emotional component.
In fact, a new study out of researchers in Sweden indicates that stress may cause autoimmune disease such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis because they found a higher number of autoimmune diseases among people who had previously diagnosed stress-related disorders.2 The study found that while many individuals exposed to stressful life events gradually recover, a significant proportion go on to develop severe psychiatric reactions, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), that can lead to chronic health conditions like autoimmune disease where your body’s immune system turns on “self” and begins attacking vital organs and tissues.
So what we often see with chronic health issues is they start out with one set of circumstances e.g., emotional or psychological stress, and end up over time creating a complexity of symptoms and issues throughout the body if left to fester.
There is a basic premise around healing a leaky gut, rebalancing the gut microbiome, or even reversing autoimmune symptoms… you can’t heal these using nutritionals, anti-parasitic herbs or even special diets IF you continue to remain locked in a death grip with stress.
So if you want to be successful with any gut or immune healing protocol, one of the most important if not the most important ways to be successful, is to break out of that chronic stress cycle once and for all.
You have lots of options available to you and you shouldn’t just have “one thing” in your remedy bag. Taking a multi-pronged approach seems to work best, so try a combination of diet, exercise or movement, and work-life balance strategies to set yourself up for success.
There are some great natural remedies for calming the emotions and combating stress. These include a diet that is free of stimulants like common allergens (if you are sensitive), caffeine, high doses of sugar, alcohol, some spicy foods and more. If you can add in foods that are gentle on your system to digest like lightly cooked vegetables, lean animal proteins, and healthy fats, most likely your body will respond in kind. You could even try intermittent fasting, which has been shown to reduce stressors in the body and free up vital energy.
If you want to support your gut and have a healthier and thriving microbiome, get off the couch and away from the computer and make exercise (any kind for at least 20 minutes a day) a priority. Studies show that exercise may change the composition and activity of all those microbes in your gut, which can improve gut barrier integrity.3 It’s fascinating how simple exercise and moving a little each day can affect even those portions of your body that seem so far removed from working out at the gym.
It pays to be vigilant and keep a lid on your stress. You can do this by simply being mindful of certain triggers that cause you to get stressed out and finding ways to slowly reduce or eliminate them from your life. Don’t forget to simply breathe deep and fully, and take time to relax.
Just to Recap How Your Emotions and Stress Impacts Your Gut…
- There is definitely a brain-gut connection within your body
- When you are stressed and in an emotional state, your body flips into a catabolic state… meaning you start breaking down tissue
- You can have a leaky gut solely from mental and emotional stress
- Have patience… a leaky gut doesn’t occur overnight and it will take time to heal… expect anywhere from 6 months to 2 years depending on the condition.
If You Say Yes to Any of The Following… Get a Remedy NOW!
- Do you have a leaky gut?
- Have you had a round of antibiotics in the last 18-24 months?
- Do you have symptoms that just won’t go away no matter what you do?
- Do you have food sensitivities and allergies?
- Have you been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease?
Heal your gut now and prevent other serious symptoms with the Gut Health Secrets 30-Day Boot Camp.
1 Zanefled, R. J., McMinds, R., Thurber, R.E. Stress and stability: applying the Anna Karenina principle to animal microbiomes. Nature Microbiology. 17121 (Aug 2017).
2 Song, H., Fang, H., Tomasson, G., et al. Association of Stress-Related Disorders With Subsequent Autoimmune Disease. JAMA. 2018;319(23):2388-2400.
3 Monda, V., et al. (2017). Exercise Modifies the Gut Microbiota with Positive Health Effects. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity. Volume 2017, Article ID 3831972.
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