|January 23, 2024

How Stress and Gut Health are Interconnected

By Molly Apel
Reviewed by Theresa Greenwell for Scientific Accuracy on 01/23/2024

How Stress and Gut Health are Interconnected

  • Ever had gut problems that don’t seem related to what you ate? Stress might actually be the cause behind tummy trouble.
  • Your nervous system controls your entire digestive tract. There are five times as many nerves in your gut than your spinal cord. (That’s why scientists call your gut your “second brain.”)
  • Read on to learn about the gut-brain axis, and how digestive problems can create brain stress and vice versa.

Have you ever had butterflies in your stomach? It’s no secret that life stress is linked to gut issues. Studies show the relationship between the two is bi-directional: stress in your life can cause gastrointestinal distress, and gut issues can actually cause psychological stress. Read on to learn how this complicated dynamic between your brain and your gut works.

Your gut is managed by your second brain

Your autonomic nervous system manages your heartbeat, blood pressure, temperature modulation and breathing.[1] This system that keeps your body humming is divided into two well-known parts: your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

Your sympathetic nervous system is what gives you the burst of energy and keen focus you need to catch a basketball and throw it in the hoop. When the game is over, your parasympathetic nervous system works to slow your heartbeat and breathing and help your brain to relax.

One of the lesser-known parts of your autonomic nervous system that’s responsible for your entire digestive tract is the enteric nervous system (ENS). This system controls five times as many neurons as the number of neurons in the spinal cord, and it’s so powerful that scientists refer to it as your “second brain.”[2] The ENS is connected to your brain and spinal cord in a relationship called the gut-brain axis.

How does a stressed-out brain send stress to the gut?

Sure, some people deal with stomach troubles when they get stressed, but what actually makes this happen?

Within the gut-brain axis, your brain and gut work together as a team. That means when the brain is stressed out, that stress can screw up communication within the team. These communication issues interrupt the body’s release of neurotransmitters that affect the speed of digestion, the body’s ability to absorb nutrients and your immune system.

This uncoordinated digestion can result in symptoms like nausea, bloating, stomach upset, inflammation or even constipation. Thanks, nervous poops.

Communication issues in the gut-brain axis also affect the health of your gut bacteria. If the balance of your gut microbiome is off, it may affect norepinephrine and dopamine levels. These hormones can directly impact your mood.[3] [4]

This effect can be so strong that gut problems may actually be one factor behind mood disorders. Sometimes, doctors even prescribe psychological therapy to treat gut problems.

Related: This Poop Chart Tells You What’s Happening in Your Gut and How to Fix It

Don’t stress about taking care of your gut health

Knowing what your body needs and taking care of it is what being Bulletproof is all about. If you’re dealing with changes in your digestion and feeling extra stressed, you know the two are probably related. Here are a few tips to keep your gut happy:

By nurturing your gut, you can soothe any added stress coming from your digestive tract and support your overall well-being. If only eliminating work stress could only be as easy.

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