by | Apr 4, 2023 | 1 comment

The Connection Between Stress and Gut Health (and what to do about it!)

What is gut health?

“Gut health” is an increasingly popular topic, but it’s largely undefined.  What does “gut health” even mean in practice?  Having the right balance of healthy gut bacteria?  Having the right enzyme and other digestive secretions to be able to digest, and even more importantly, absorb, the nutrients from the food we’re eating?  Having “good” bowel movements?  Producing enough serotonin, which is a “happy hormone” found in much higher concentrations in the gut than in the brain?

I think it means all of the above, and so much more.  Gut health is connected to all health, and every week, we find out more and more about how gut health impacts chronic disease risk, mood and brain health, obesity, immunity, and more.  And unfortunately, our guts, collectively, are not that healthy! 25-80 million Americans have at least one functional gastrointestinal disorder today, and they’re on the rise.

The Connection Between Stress and Gut Health (and what to do about it!)

Can I test for gut health?

I tell clients every day that I am so excited for the day when we have just one test to tell us all the foods that are right for us individually from all angles, but right now, we’re just not there yet.  Although I run food sensitivity tests out of my practice because that’s what people want, even the BEST tests (which, of course, are the ones I offer!) are not fully diagnostic because of the various mechanisms by which foods can cause us issues.  And I LOVE the stool test that I offer my 1-to-1 clients, but that is an expensive test that still doesn’t tell the full picture.  (By the way, if you do want one of these tests, feel free to email me for pricing and details. 

How can I improve gut health?

There are numerous food-related tactics I use with my 1-to-1 clients to improve gut health, and they’re far beyond the scope of one blog post, so I’m going to tackle one way that everyone can improve gut health here: by helping the body cope with stress.  Yes, stress and gut health are intimately connected, and here’s how. 

How are stress and gut health related?

The gut and the brain are in constant communication via neurotransmitters that travel throughout the central nervous system (the brain), the endocrine system (which controls hormones), and the enteric nervous system (the gut).  Gut bacteria are partly in control of this communication with the brain, so the health of our gut microbiome impacts our mental health, and vice versa

Have you ever heard any of the following phrases?

  • “Gut feelings”
  • “Knot in my stomach”
  • “Butterflies in my stomach”
  • “Gut-wrenching”
  • “Go with your gut”

We intuitively know that our gut and brain are so connected!  These phrases have become colloquial because the feelings we get in our guts are so powerful. 

The Connection Between Stress and Gut Health (and what to do about it!)

What is the physical connection between the gut and the brain?

The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the body, and physically connects the gut and the brain.  It is the main contributor to the parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) state, which governs many autonomic processes, like blood vessel dilation, saliva secretion, bowel motility, and glandular secretions. 

And this is why stress and gut health are so connected. Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”) which prepares you to run from danger and inhibits GI function. This can also negatively alter the gut microbiome. After acute stress, the body can return to parasympathetic (“rest and digest”), but with chronic stress, the balance can be disrupted.

How can helping our bodies cope with stress improve our gut health?

When clients come to me to improve their gut health, sometimes we’ll do testing, and sometimes we’ll do food-related experiments.  But almost always, I’ll start by building in some stress management practices.  I can almost hear the eye roll as I know they think, “c’mon, I’m not here to manage stress, I’m here because I’m bloated!”  And I’m very much not ignoring them. 

But here’s the thing … research shows that stress management practices like some of the therapies I’ll review below have even more impact on gut health than medications or other interventions, in many cases.  WOW, right?

Which mind-body therapies are proven to improve gut health?

I recently did a project for my Doctorate of Clinical Nutrition investigating some of the scientifically proven benefits of mind-body therapies and gut health.  I’ll save some of the more complicated and in-depth ones for another day, but here are 4 proven therapies that almost anyone can practice at home, with their proven benefits to gut health. 

Relaxation therapies like breathing exercises and gut health

The Connection Between Stress and Gut Health (and what to do about it!)

  • A meta-analysis showed that GI symptoms, especially abdominal pain frequency and abdominal distention (bloating) reduced significantly after 8-12 weeks of relaxation therapies.
  • Even when participants said their anxiety was not reduced and didn’t rate their quality of life as changed, their symptoms decreased!
  • Here are my 4 favorite breathing exercises that you can practice on your own!

Meditation and gut health

  • Researchers who conducted a large review on meditation and its impact on GI health showed that in the absence of stress, the healthy microbiome produces short-chain fatty acids that can reduce inflammation and even have antitumor impacts.  However, stress negatively alters the microbiome and contributes to poor gut function.  Their research concluded that meditation can help alter the stress response, suppressing chronic inflammation and maintaining healthy gut function. 
  • In another study, women with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) were given mindfulness training, then instructed on how to do an at-home practice for 6 weeks.  Their IBS symptoms and quality of life were significantly improved.
  • A systematic review of studies on mindfulness and GI health showed that mindfulness practices like meditation reduced sympathetic nervous system overdrive and helped create positive brain changes that led to improved gut health changes.
  • For more on the benefits of meditation and my top 3 ways to practice, see this post.

Yoga and gut health

  • Yoga helps increase the mind-body connection by stimulating the vagus nerve, which connects the gut and the brain.  A study compared two 75-minute sessions of hatha yoga per week for 12 weeks vs. the low-FODMAP diet, which is a restrictive but commonly used diet to alleviate gut symptoms.  Both groups in the study improved on gut symptoms, BUT the yoga group had better improvements in perceived body awareness, mind-body connection, and anxiety! 
  • Another systematic review showed even more profound impacts of practicing yoga, including: 
    • Lessened overall GI symptoms
    • Decreased bowel frequency and symptoms 
    • Decreased IBS severity
    • Decreased anxiety
    • Boosted feelings of general well-being
    • Improved quality of life
    • Increased physical functioning
  • A final study investigated children with abdominal pain due to FGID and compared yoga therapy to standard medical care. After 12 months, the children in the yoga group improved their abdominal pain and reduced school absences more than those who received standard medical care! 
  • You can practice yoga at home with free resources like Yoga with Adriene or DoYogaWithMe, or find a class in your area!

Time in Nature and gut health 

The Connection Between Stress and Gut Health (and what to do about it!)

  • The 10-week “Play & Grow” study encouraged preschool children to interact with nature.  Those who spent time in nature had significant alterations in microbiome, including: moderated diversity of Actinobacteria and Firmicutes, decreased alpha diversity of Bacteroidetes, and increased alpha diversity of Proteobacteria.  All of these changes are consistent with a healthy microbiome, and the perceived stress of the children also decreased!
  • A similar adult study showed that simply touching soil with hands daily for 2 weeks changed both the skin and gut microbiomes in a positive way.
  • The simplest way to get these benefits is just to get outside!  Aim for 10 minutes per day. Use whatever form of “nature” is available to you.  Even though being in a forest or near water or on top of a mountain may be “best,” simply being outdoors in whatever capacity is possible is healing.  Ask colleagues or friends you’re meeting with whether they’re open to a walking (virtual / phone or in-person) meeting. And taking a 10-minute walk after meals has double bonus of being great for blood sugar!

So now we know that stress is intimately connected to gut health, and that you can have a profound impact on your body’s ability to handle stress, and thus on your gut health, with one of these four mind-body therapies.  The body is so amazing and resilient, and you can improve your own health with these simple practices!

Now it’s your turn!  Which of these four mind-body therapies would you be most excited to include regularly?

🎙️ Want to hear about this topic in audio format? → Check out the podcast episode here!

1 Comment

  1. Debbie Milovic

    Amazing and very spot on post Megan. As always, thank you.


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Megan Lyons Headshot

Hi! I'm Megan Lyons,

the voice behind The Lyons’ Share. I love all things health, wellness, and fitness-related, and I hope to share some of my passion with you. Thanks for stopping by!
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