Stress is a difficult, but necessary part of life. We may view stress as the times where we have an overwhelming number of worries on our plate that makes us feel like we can’t handle it all. Though to our body, a stress response could even be activated when you get even slightly agitated. It can occur from seeing some dishes in the sink seemingly right after you washed them or from dealing with a challenging situation at work.
When we experience this, the body is altered in numerous ways. The cardiovascular system, nervous, and muscular systems all have different stress responses. That’s especially the case in our gut. Quite often the most noticeable response can come with complications within the gastrointestinal system. Feeling stress can lead to nausea, vomiting, heartburn, abdominal pain, and diarrhea or constipation.
It doesn’t stop here, though. Onset of gut ailments like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) are consistently associated with stress. One study even contends that stress could be what triggers Crohn’s disease, one of the types of IBD.
“Although stress may not cause stomach ulcers or inflammatory bowel disease, it can make these and other diseases of digestion worse,” says Dr. Kenneth Koch, professor of medicine in gastroenterology and medical director of the Digestive Health Center at the Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.
Another cohort study of 600 participants whose IBS was caused by the bacterium Campylobacter reveals that how well or not patients handled their stress played a crucial role in whether they developed IBS from infection or not.
As this suggests, it is important to find ways to help manage stress no matter how old or healthy you are. It’s especially important for patients with gut conditions, or virtually any chronic or autoimmune disease out there. Even before a disease presents itself, stress may be a catalyst that leads to disease onset, so managing it may be a crucial part of prevention.
Ways to Manage Stress for Gut Health
1. Physical Fitness
Exercise has been shown to relieve tension and promote “happy” chemicals, or endorphins. Making movement part of your regular routine can support consistent stress management. This can be as simple as taking the stairs instead of the elevator or pausing your workday for a 15 minute brisk walk.
It’s recommended that you log 150 minutes of light to moderate exercise weekly — which is just 30 minutes across five days. Any health concerns you have from physical activity should first be discussed with your doctor.
Mindfulness has made its way into conventional, Western health practice in recent years for good reason. Taking even just 5 minutes out of your day to sit and breathe can help you reach relaxation in the midst of a stress-inducing situation, allowing you to think through things more clearly. This can be done anywhere, which makes it a practical choice.
Here’s an easy 5-minute mindfulness meditation you can practice. It can even be done sitting at your work desk or in your car. Make sure you’re sitting upright and in a comfortable, relaxed position with your hands in your lap or at your side.
Close your eyes and take three deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. After the third deep breath, return to normal breathing and begin to take an “internal” scan of your body. Start from your head and take notice of any areas that feel tense. When you reach an area of concern, take in a deep breath and imagine fresh, cool air entering your body and soothing that area. Exhale out all the tension. Continue this process slowly moving down your body, all the way down to your toes. If you find yourself getting distracted, bring your attention back to your body and continue your scan.
Once you’re finished your scan, take a deep breath and picture what you’d consider to be your “happy place.” This could be the beach, your backyard, or even at a destination with family or friends. Envision what your happy place looks like and take note of all the details and action you see. Continue to take deep breaths as you look around your happy place. And when you’re ready, open your eyes and return to normal breathing.
3. Eating a nutritious diet
For many, food can be a source of stress, making matters worse. In other cases, people under more stress may turn to highly processed foods for “relief.” Foods high in sugar could actually wind up doing you more harm than good, though. Situations vary, but prioritizing gut-healthy foods can help achieve a healthier mind, too.
What are some of the foods you should eat more of?
- Oily fish, such as salmon or sardines
- Olive and avocado oils
- Citrus fruits
- Almonds and walnuts
These are just a few examples of foods that can be supportive against the effects of stress. That’s due in part to higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, or magnesium.
Stress is part of everyone’s lives, and there is no way for us to completely eliminate it no matter what we do. That said, being more mindful of how we manage it can help to protect our guts and other systems from stress inflicting more harm on the body than it already does.
If you find that you are more overwhelmed than anything else, seeking psychotherapy may be an option for you. Additionally, be sure to talk with a healthcare professional before making any significant changes to your diet, or if you think diet is the root of some of your concerns.