I don’t know about you but when I‘m stressed I immediately feel like my stomach has turned into a solid ball of tension, and when I’m nervous I feel butterflies in my stomach. The reason for this is because the gut and the brain are closely related and in constant communication. The very thought of your mom’s home-cooked meals can trigger digestive juices in the stomach (gastric juices) and make you ravenous within minutes. Conversely, any distresses in the gut and stomach can cause anxiety, stress, and depression according to Anthony L. Komaroff (Editor in Chief, Harvard Health Letter)
According to the book Neuroscience, more neurons (cells that transmit nerve impulses) are said to reside in the human gut than in the entire spinal cord, which makes the gut and digestive system a rather sensitive system. This is the reason why there is such a big hype about gut health.
When the gut is unhappy, we sometimes experience physical pain or symptoms such as stomach aches, gas, bloating, heartburn, and diarrhea we also experience non-gut-related symptoms such as stress, lack of sleep, fatigue, skin problems, infections, and the list goes on.
My interest, in particular, has been how stress, sleep, and digestive health are all related so here’s how an unhealthy gut affects stress and sleep in particular.
How the gut affects stress
Our gut produces roughly 90% of the body’s serotonin, our bodies happy hormones. Serotonin regulates the secretion of the stress hormone Cortisol. Scientific studies done on mice have shown that serotonin levels are lower in mice with less healthy gut bacteria. If there is less serotonin in the system, inflammation increases and Cortisol increases. Too much cortisol can interfere with sleep levels and can lead to anxiety, stress, and depression
High levels of cortisol take the blood to the limbs giving you the energy to run away from danger but this takes the energy away from the gut, lowering digestive enzymes that break down food as well as the absorption of healthy vitamins and minerals. In conclusion, there is therefore a very delicate relationship between the gut and stress levels and if we start paying attention to this balance we will be able to manage both stress and gut health.
How the gut affects Sleep
An unhappy gut manifests in stomach aches, gas, bloating, and nausea which can make it very difficult to sleep. Good quality sleep is very important in managing stress levels and again we have just learnt how the stress hormone cortisol causes additional stress on the digestive system.
Poor sleep, on the other hand, increases the appetite and especially cravings for junk food, the more junk food we eat, the more stress is placed on the digestive system. Junk food is laden with artificial substances that take the place of healthy vitamins and minerals that the body requires to function. The presence of these preservatives and flavoring agents causes inflammation in the gut and this again raises cortisol levels, which acts as an anti-inflammatory. However, if the gut is constantly inflamed by the continuous consumption of processed food, then cortisol levels remain high preventing the body from producing melatonin ( the sleep hormone), thus keeping us from getting a restful night’s sleep. Needless to say, there is another delicate balance between the gut and sleep.
How to keep the gut healthy.
- Eat a whole food diet rich in anti inflammatory foods, such as green leafy vegetables, bok choy , celery, beets, blueberries and pineapple.
- Manage your stress levels.
- Get more quality sleep.
- Eat foods rich in fiber.
- Drink loads of fresh water.
To Summarize, there is a delicate balance between the gut, stress, and sleep. If one of these is out of balance the other two will start to feel the strain. If you can just start taking action in correcting one of these areas, you will see drastic changes in your health and energy levels.