Bloated stomach again? Stress could be the culprit. Nutritional Therapist Hannah Braye reveals how stress can affect the gut plus seven ways you can reduce symptoms
Lock-down has changed many aspects of our lives – how we shop, how we work, how we exercise and how we socialise.
It’s fair to say 2020 has been a stressful year for many.
It’s also bought many additional stressors into our daily lives, including child-care issues, health anxieties, money worries and emotional upheaval from missing our loved ones.
Given how intrinsically linked gut health and mental well-being are, it’s therefore unsurprising that many people also report a worsening of digestive issues during times of stress.
How does stress affect the digestive system?
The digestive system is especially vulnerable to the presence of chronic stress, and digestive discomfort is often an early warning sign that stress might be affecting you physically.
The digestive tract contains its own nervous system (the enteric nervous system), comprising a network of nerve fibers and neurons that are influenced by signals from the brain.
The digestive tract contains its own nervous system
In this sense, the gut is an integral part of the nervous system, so the brain can easily affect gut function, and vice versa.
When our ‘fight or flight’ response is activated, blood supply to the digestive system is diverted to other organs of the body such as the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems.
This results in a reduction in digestive secretions such as stomach acid, bile and digestive enzymes, making it harder for us to digest our food and placing strain on the digestive tract.
Our gut bacteria also respond directly to stress-related signals, which can lead to an imbalance in gut flora (dysbiosis) and increased permeability of the gut lining – also known as ‘leaky gut’. This can lead to numerous digestive symptoms and other health complications.
Our gut bacteria also play a vital role supporting the immune system, which could explain why people often pick up colds and other infections when they are run-down and stressed.
All of the above can lead to symptoms such as constipation and diarrhea, stomach cramps and bloating and may be why many people who suffer with digestive issues, such as Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and gastro-oesophageal reflux (GORD), report an exacerbation of symptoms in stressful periods.
What can we do to support the digestive system in times of stress?
As stress can depress our digestive process, the digestive system may need some additional support in times of stress.
Bloated stomach fix #1 Eat mindfully
Set aside time for meals away from the computer, phone, TV and make sure to sit at a table whilst eating.
Chewing food well will help to stimulate digestive juices, so put your cutlery down between mouthfuls, and focus on the textures and flavours of your meal.
Bloated stomach fix #2 Stimulate digestion
Bitter leaves, such as rocket, chicory, watercress and endives, with a lemon juice or apple cider vinegar dressing, help to stimulate stomach acid, digestive enzymes and bile (production of which may be reduced when stressed).
For additional support, herbal/Swedish bitters and digestive enzyme supplements may be beneficial.
Bloated stomach fix #3 Take a live bacteria supplement
Stress can disturb the mixture of bacteria in our gut flora by reducing the number of beneficial species such as lactobacilli and bifidobacteria.
Live bacteria supplements, such as Bio-Kult Migréa, have been shown in studies to help reduce digestive symptoms such as bloating, flatulence, constipation and diarrhoea.
Stress can disturb the mixture of bacteria in our gut flora
There is also promising evidence for the use of live bacteria supplements in helping to reduce the negative effects of stress.
Bloated stomach fix #4 Increase your fibre intake
Fibre provides the food source for many beneficial species of bacteria in the gut. However, many people aren’t eating the recommend 30g a day.
Aim to eat a wide variety of fibre rich plant-foods (e.g. fruit and vegetables, pulses, beans and legumes, wholegrains and nuts).
These foods will also provide a range of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients required to support a healthy stress response.
Bloated stomach fix #5 Avoid processed and high sugar foods
Not only are additives and emulsifiers used in processed foods often a trigger for digestive issues, these foods are also nutrient poor and often spike and crash blood sugars, exacerbating the stress response.
Stock up on wholefood alternatives for snacks, such as fruit, veg sticks and hummus, unsalted nuts, boiled eggs and oatcakes.
Bloated stomach fix #6 Practice self-care
This involves prioritising your own needs (even when there are other competing demands) as this will help you better cope with stressful situations in the long-run.
For example, going to bed early to ensure sufficient sleep, eating well to fuel your body with the extra nutrients it needs in times of stress and taking gentle exercise to help release feel-good endorphins.
Not only that but practicing breathing exercises or meditation can also help to help quieten the mind, as can getting outdoors in nature, and avoiding stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol, which can exacerbate digestive symptoms, trigger the fight or flight response and lead to imbalances in mood-regulating neurotransmitters.
Bloated stomach fix #7 Don’t suffer in silence
If you are struggling to cope with stress and it is having an impact on your physical and/or mental health, speak to a friend, family member or health care professional.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be a useful tool in helping to build stress resilience and working with a registered nutrition practitioner can also help you get to the bottom of digestive issues.