Processed foods, antibiotics, travel, alcohol—by now we’re well aware of the factors that can compromise our gut health. But there’s one factor that plays a huge role in the functioning of our GI system but which often gets overlooked: stress.
The Stress-Gut Connection
When we encounter any type of stress, our body releases cortisol, an essential hormone that prepares our body to deal with “fight or flight” situations. This hormone was designed to spike quickly to get us out of danger and then lower again just as rapidly.
However, the stressors of modern life mean we’re in a state of chronically elevated cortisol. This can lead to negative effects throughout the body, and especially within the GI system.
High levels of cortisol reduce the integrity of the intestinal lining, loosening the tight junctions that control what we absorb. This invites substances into the bloodstream that would usually be filtered out. The result? Intestinal hyperpermeability, or, as we call it, leaky gut.
Consistently high cortisol levels can also negatively affect the health of your microbiome. Studies have shown that highly stressed individuals have both a less diverse microbiome (a diverse microbiome = a healthy microbiome) and a reduced number of good bacteria within the gut.
Symptoms of leaky gut and an imbalanced microbiome can include gas, bloating, constipation or diarrhea, skin issues (such as acne, eczema, and rosacea), brain fog, irritability, and anxiety. In the long-term, serious health challenges like malabsorption and hormone imbalances can arise. Plus, chronic inflammation caused by poor gut health can even be a contributor to autoimmune conditions.
And to come full circle on the gut-stress continuum, the health of your gut can actually contribute to your stress levels! An estimated 90% of serotonin—one of our feel-good neurotransmitters—is made in the gut, and certain strains of gut bacteria are even able to lower your cortisol levels.
While traditional gut health strategies such as eating your greens and drinking kombucha can help, try these easy-to-implement daily nutrition, fitness, and wellbeing strategies to manage your cortisol levels and improve the health of your gut:
1. Eat a low-carb, blood sugar-balancing diet
Blood sugar swings are one of the main reasons our cortisol levels can spike during the day, so ensure every meal contains a combination of protein, fiber-rich vegetables, and good fats. And keep sweet treats to a minimum!
2. Create a “toolbox” of stress relieving go-tos
To calm the nervous system, take a few moments to ensure your exhales are longer than your inhales. You can also keep a lavender oil rollerball in your bag. (Lavender oil has been clinically proven to lower cortisol levels.) My personal favorite stress reliever? Eat a few squares of magnesium-rich dark chocolate a day.
3. Vary your workout routine
Endurance runners and bodybuilders often have terrible gut health due to the constant release of cortisol caused by exercise. While a cortisol boost can actually be good for our health and energy levels, excess cortisol is catabolic (destructive) to your muscles. So balance out your intense workouts with more low-key options like walking and yoga. You’ll find that your fitness level and body composition will actually improve as a result.
4. Laugh, play, snuggle, and have sex
Yep, having sex is great for your gut health. When you have fun, or are in close physical contact with someone you love (and not just sex—a hug from a friend works just as well) we release a hormone called oxytocin, which reduces cortisol and gives us that warm, fuzzy feeling.
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