The Secrets of Stress Coping are Down in Your Belly

Jan 31, 2024

The article was originally published on Healthista.

Your belly isn’t just that place where the food goes and we can stress about its appearance, it’s actually at the centre of all body systems and its health can influence how we feel and react. Looking after your core can have fantastic repercussions and improve quality of life on many levels.

It’s all going on down there

There is a massive and independent ‘second brain’ running the whole route of your digestive tract – from mouth to anus – called the enteric nervous system. This has about 100 million cells, one thousandth as many as neurons (nerve cells) found in the human brain and around the same as a cat’s brain! This brain is capable of ’thinking‘, ’remembering‘ and ’learning‘, so whilst it isn’t able to make cognitive thoughts, it is how we sense how we intuitively feel about a situation, environment and get ‘vibes’ from people.

This is an important survival mechanism as it determines whether we should approach or withdraw. If you want to leave a room or not spend time with a certain person, you really should listen to this ‘gut instinct’. Scientists are understanding more and more about how gut feelings protect us – about 90 per cent of information goes bottom-up (brain to gut), not trusting our senses can lead to more stress in life.

Healthy gut bacteria

Our digestive tracts are ideally colonised by around 8lb of beneficial bacteria or probiotics; more cells than in the whole of our skin. These are depleted by sugar, stress, antibiotics, steroid medications and stomach bugs. Their job is to create energy from food to feed the gut wall, create some B vitamins and help digestion, but they also influence our emotional responses.

The gut-brain axis

Information flows back and forth continuously between the brain and your gut using more than 30 neurotransmitters (brain chemicals), most of which are biochemically-identical to those found in the brain. It is estimated that 50% of dopamine and 95% of the serotonin in the body is found within the GI tract. This doesn’t enter the brain, but it signals how the land lies back up to your central nervous system via probiotics. A healthy gut environment is the basis of good mental health and how well we’re able to calm down after a stress has passed.

Stress in our guts

Discrepancies in our gut environment can create imbalances in the central nervous system. Recent research has shown that different probiotic strains can actually anxiety and reduce excess stress hormones. As they can also regulate the immune system, this recipe may help to reduce stress-related irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms, immune issues, inflammatory conditions (eg skin and joint) and help recovery from burnout and adrenal fatigue.

Numerous studies have shown that psychological stress suppresses beneficial bacteria. Inflammatory immune system messengers called cytokines triggered from the gut wall during the stress response have shown to disrupt brain neurochemistry and make people more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.

In a nutshell, stress changes our digestive system environment, making our stress coping less and then keeping up the stress response – a constant vicious cycle if we don’t both prioritise stress-relief and support good gut health.

Healthy eating habits, good digestion

Dietary tip: satisfying meals with quality protein, healthy fats and plenty of vegetables provide all the nourishment we need. Giving our digestive processes a rest between meals allows the whole business to have the energy it needs. It takes up to 40 hours for food to travel from swallowing to out the other end and each time we put something else into our mouths, we start up the whole thing over again and allow little rest for healing. Some snacking can help regulate blood sugar at the right times, but oral fixation with food can lessen our relationship with hunger and our body’s true needs.

Lifestyle tip: full chewing is crucial to good digestion as it signals to the stomach and intestines to prepare for the arrival of food. The taste of foods tells the body exactly which combination of fats, proteins and carbohydrates are on their way, so your gut can prepare the right enzymes to break them down. This isn’t just important to absorb nutrients from our food, but also to ensure that only partially digested food isn’t hanging around, when it can putrefy, create gas and lead to symptoms like constipation, diarrhoea and food intolerances. Mindful eating during meals has shown to naturally regulate portion size and create the satisfaction that lowers food cravings later.

Healthy gut wall, good barrier

Dietary tip: Fermented foods – like yoghurt, sauerkraut, kefir, miso, apple cider vinegar – help create a gut environment where probiotic bacteria can flourish. Gut wall cells can be fed by the fats in organic butter (butyric acid) and coconut oil (SCFAs), which also support the immune system. Daily cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, kale, broccoli and pak choi contain substances called sulphurophanes that support cell and liver detoxification and provide sulphur for gut wall healing.

Lifestyle tip: allowing full rest regularly and good quality sleep allows the energy that the gut needs to constantly repair. Thinking, moving and even just standing directs fuel, circulation and nutrients to our muscles and brain. When you consider that the most recent approximation of gut surface marks it the size of half a badminton court and each cell is renewed every 4-5 days, it’s easy to see how our digestive health can suffer without adequate rest.

Healthy gut mucosa, good immune responses

Dietary tip: a diet high in vegetables feeds minerals, soluble fibre and fluids directly to the gut mucosa. Many modern diets contain more grains (wheat, rice, oats etc) than vegetables, which can be a strain on gut health as many gases can be produced. Going back to traditionally processed grain sources like the sourdough bread, artisan breads or Bircher muesli below is a softer gut choice as the potentially inflammatory anti-nutrients they contain are broken down. Eating grains and beans (lentils, chick peas, black beans etc) only processed traditionally - cooked in onions and garlic, preferably in a slow cooker.

Lifestyle tip: if you have a period of constipation, gas or feeling that you’re not having that ‘full and satisfying evacuation’ that is the sign of integral gut mucosa, a course of Aloe Vera juice can help. 25ml before bed gives this gel from the leaf of the plant to work its healing magic when your digestive system is empty and you are in full resting and renewal mode. Chewing also stimulates the thymus gland to produce T-cells, a major part of the protective immune system; your body knows that unwelcome guests like harmful bacteria may be on their way.

Gut healing recipe

This Bircher Muesli recipe from The De-Stress Effect can help to hydrate, nourish and allow healing in the gut. It’s a great alternative to muesli or cereals that may be more difficult to break down and cause inflammation on the gut wall. The linseed helps to create a protective mucilage on the gut wall.

Bircher Muesli

  • Soak 35g rolled oats and a dessertspoon of golden linseeds in water or half water/half freshly squeezed organic apple juice overnight in the fridge.
  • For protein add a tablespoon of nuts and seeds – choose from almonds, Brazils, walnuts, pecans, sunflower and pumpkin seeds.
  • Sweeten only with ground cinnamon and fruit from the optional extras below.
  • Optional extras - chopped dried apricots, prunes, unsweetened desiccated coconut, grated apple, berries, sliced or stewed plums.
  • You can add a dollop of live Greek or plain yogurt to taste.
  • For variety or a gluten-free option, quinoa or millet flakes can be used in place of oats.

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