Stress and the Gut-Brain Connection

What is stress? And what on earth does it have to do with your gut?

Some definitions of stress

In the words of Dr Heidi Hanna, “stress is what happens when demand exceeds capacity.”

According to Hans Selye (1907-1982) in his 1956 book “The Stress of Life”:

“Stress is essentially reflected by the rate of all the wear and tear caused by life.…For instance, we are just beginning to see that many common diseases are largely due to errors in our adaptive response to stress, rather than to direct damage by germs, poisons, or life experiences. In this sense many nervous and emotional disturbances, high blood pressure, gastric and duodenal ulcers, and certain types of sexual, allergic, cardiovascular, and renal  derangement appear to be essentially diseases of adaptation.”

Stress affects our entire lives

As it turns out, we actually need stress. All of the meaningful things in life come with stress (e.g. success, love, marriage, etc.)

It’s how we handle high stress and the support we get that determines how it affects us.

Key findings from the Stress and wellbeing in Australia survey 2015, conducted by the Australian Psychological Society, include:

  • 35% of Australians report having a significant level of distress in their lives
  • 26% of Australians report above normal levels of anxiety symptoms
  • 26% of Australians report having moderate to extremely severe levels of depression symptoms
  • Anxiety symptoms were the highest they have been in the five years of the survey.
  • Financial issues are rated as the top cause of stress over the five years
  • Increase in the number of people turning to gambling to manage stress (now one in five)
  • People who report higher levels of anxiety and depression symptoms and distress are more likely to gamble, smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, and take recreational drugs

What you need to know about the Gut-Brain Axis

This is the key system to understanding your overall health. Your gut is even referred to as your second brain, and physically they even resemble each other! Around 80% of your immune system is found in the gut, and 95% of your serotonin—the feel-good neurotransmitter—is made and stored in the intestines. As the gut affects the brain, the opposite is also true. The brain has been shown to regulate gut mucosal immunity. It’s a two-way street.

Can stress affect your gut?

Oh you betcha! Under stress, the Vagus Nerve becomes overstimulated and can make you feel nauseous and cause indigestion or heartburn.

The Vagus Nerve is the longest cranial nerve. It contains motor and sensory fibres and, because it passes through the neck and thorax to the abdomen, has the widest distribution in the body. It contains somatic and visceral afferent fibres, as well as general and special visceral efferent fibres.

As we all know from experience, stress can cause digestive problems, such as bloating, stomach cramps, and changes in your bowel habits, resulting in diarrhea (urgency) or constipation.

And this in turn can affect your gut microbiome and lead to Leaky Gut or Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).