Is Stress Damaging Your Gut?

This article was originally published by our friend Dr. Amy Myers

Research has linked high levels of stress with autoimmune disease, heart disease, ulcers, diabetes, hormone imbalances, and countless other chronic health conditions. However, even knowing this research, doctors and patients alike still tend to focus more on the physical causes of disease rather than the physical and mental stressors that are often impacting their health.

The truth is that I’m seeing more and more patients with stress as a primary cause of their autoimmune and other chronic diseases, and it’s not just adults! I’m increasingly seeing children who are suffering from stress-related health problems as well! That’s why the fourth pillar of The Myers Way®, my approach to preventing and reversing inflammatory disease, is Heal Your Infections and Relieve Your Stress.

There are several factors that cause stress to negatively impact your health. In The Autoimmune Solution, I explain how stress can trigger or worsen an autoimmune disease because of its affect on your immune system. But, chronic stress can also damage your gut, which, as you know by now is the gateway to health, opening the door for a whole host of issues. In this article we’ll take a look at how stress affects your gut, and I’ll share some of my personal favorite stress relief practices.

How Stress Damages Your Gut

I often talk about how the gut is the gateway to health, and how a damaged gut can impact other areas of your health, including your brain. But, the brain and digestive system actually share a two-way connection, so not only does a healthy gut affect your mental state, but your mental state affects how your gut functions. Let’s take a closer look at how this connection works.

Your Body’s Response to Stress
When you experience any kind of stress, whether physical (slamming on your brakes), emotional (going through a heartbreak), or mental (overloaded at work), your body processes it the same- through the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands respond by creating a flood of stress hormones, including cortisol, which affect both your digestive system and your immune system (80% of which is located in your gut). Our stress response evolved primarily as a means of self-preservation from our ancestors facing immediate, life-threatening situations. Unfortunately, that response isn’t ideal for the type of chronic, ongoing stress we face today.

The Problem with Chronic Stress
For one, the cortisol your adrenal glands produce revs up your immune system and is highly inflammatory. This makes sense if you have an open wound and need to use inflammation to fight infection, it’s less helpful, and even harmful, if you are chronically stressed because you are working 80 hours a week or your marriage is on the rocks. Sustaining a high level of inflammation is dangerous because it puts you on the autoimmune spectrum, and, if it continues over time, can trigger an autoimmune disease. Your body recognizes this, so it actually suppresses your immune system after a cortisol spike, leaving it anywhere from 40% – 70% below the baseline, to balance out the initial burst of inflammation.

When you experience acute stress, such as a bear attack or the flu, your body’s natural short-term inflammatory response is exactly what you want to temporarily boost your immune system and give you energy to run and immune cells to fight the flu. However, in today’s world, we are all experiencing more long-term and chronic stress, such as always being available on our smart devices, working long hours, and over committing ourselves. We are not shutting off and unplugging, giving our bodies a chance to rest and recover. As a result, your body continuously cycles through periods of high inflammation, which can damage the gut lining, and a suppressed immune system, which leaves your gut vulnerable to pathogens you might be ingesting.

Furthermore, when your stress response kicks in, your digestive system shuts down. If you’re running from a predator, you need blood flow concentrated in your limbs for fleeing and your brain for problem solving, not in your gut for digesting your lunch.

How this Impacts Your Health

In this vulnerable state when the digestive system is suppressed or shut down, and your immune system is suppressed, harmful bacteria are able to multiply unchecked. The digestive system is temporarily unable to fight off bad bacteria by producing enough good bacteria to combat them, which can lead to imbalances in your gut flora such as Candida overgrowth.

What’s more, a shortage of good bacteria and an excess of yeast or bad bacteria can actually cause you to experience more stress because 95% of your serotonin (the “feel good” neurotransmitter that regulates mood, well-being, and sleep) is produced in the gut, and this production is slowed when you’re battling yeast overgrowth, a parasite, or other gut problems.

How to Combat Stress and Maintain a Healthy Gut

In today’s society full of never-ending demands on your time and the persistent feeling that you could always be doing more, it can be difficult to avoid stress. The key to keeping stress manageable and preventing it from causing negative health effects is to learn the tools to leave a stressful situation behind you after it’s over. I discuss this in-depth in my book, The Autoimmune Solution, as relieving stress is one of the four pillars of The Myers Way®, and you can read about it in this post.

Before I tell you how I like to de-stress, I want to be clear – there is no one best way to relax and relieve stress. Everyone manages their stress differently, so don’t stress yourself out over trying to follow the perfect de-stressing routine! The important thing is to find what works for you personally, whether that’s doing yoga, going for a run, spending time with your family, spending time alone, working in your garden, going to church, or any other activity.

Here are a few of my favorite de-stressing tips to get you started.

Sensory Deprivation Floatation Session– A few weeks ago I did my very first float session in a sensory deprivation tank, and I loved it! Floatation tanks provide a light and sound-free environment, with a shallow pool of water containing about 1,000 lbs of dissolved epsom salt. The high concentration of epsom salt allows you to float effortlessly, and the temperature is the same as that of your skin, so that you can’t even feel the water around you. The effect is a completely dark, quiet, and weightless flotation that reduces your cortisol levels, relieves muscle aches, and allows you to spend 60-90 minutes free from any stimulation whatsoever.

HeartMath Inner Balance App– I love the Inner Balance app for iPhone. It uses an external sensor on your earlobe to help you synchronize your heart rate, breath, and mind. It’s super easy to use, and convenient since I always have my iPhone with me. Plus, as a very goal-oriented person (yes, even in my stress reduction!), I love that it lets you set goals and track your progress.

Infrared Sauna Therapy– Spending time in an infrared sauna has many health benefits, including stress relief and detoxification. I personally have one in my home, and you can also receive treatments from natural spas that house their own.

Going on a Hike with My Husband and Dog Mocha – Spending time in nature with my family can be both relaxing and restorative, and squeezing in more quality time with my husband and sweet rescue puppy both cheers me up and calms me down, so this is a win-win all around!

Taking a Relaxing Bath with Homemade Bath Salts– I love winding down my evening with a relaxing hot bath. For a little extra pampering and relaxation, make your own Lavender Love Bath Salts, the Epsom salt is perfect for achy, stiff muscles, and the calming scent will take away the stress of your busy day.

Amy Myers, MD is a renowned leader in Functional Medicine and New York Times Bestselling author of The Autoimmune Solution. She received her Doctorate in Medicine from LSU Health Sciences Center and spent 5 years working in emergency medicine before training with the Institute of Functional Medicine. She has helped thousands around the world recover from chronic illness through her dietary based program, The Myers Way, and she has created multiple interactive eBooks and eCourses to guide readers through her revolutionary approach to health. Her blog and website serve as a beacon of hope to the many sufferers of chronic disease and autoimmune conditions. Her book: The Autoimmune Solution, a 30 day program to prevent and reverse the full spectrum of inflammatory symptoms and disease, is now available at all book retailers.