Have you ever described bad news as a “kick in the gut”? Or felt a wave of nausea when you got shocked with something you didn’t expect? How about “butterflies in your stomach” when nervous? Your brain and gut talk to each other — a lot. If you are under stress, your entire digestive system is negatively affected. Also the reverse is true — if your digestive system is not healthy, your mood will be affected. This leads to a host of other maladies which are easily recognized:
- Digestive issues such as gas, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation.
- Symptoms of depression: sense of doom or hopelessness, withdrawing from relationships, and chronic sadness.
- Symptoms of anxiety: heart racing, irritability, nervousness, insomnia, and “comfort eating”.
- General ailments: brain fog, muscle aches, autoimmune problems, general inflammation, allergies, and poor nutrition.
The last set of ailments, in particular, are symptoms of “leaky gut”. This refers to a condition where the digestive tract allows incompletely broken down particles of food through its barrier and into the blood stream, where the immune system sees them as dangerous foreign invaders. Leaky gut is hard to diagnose because it occurs at the microscopic level.
The intestinal barrier is intentionally porous, meant to allow nutrients through, but not the larger molecules. The gut permeability adjusts to allow selected nutrients through, if the intestinal lining is healthy. The thin lining is made up of epithelial cells that are tightly joined together, and these junctions can be disrupted easily.
Stress — not just in your mind
Stress obviously causes a slow-down in digestion. The sympathetic nervous system reacts to the “fight or flight” messages: the body is getting signals that it is in crisis, and purposefully diverts energy away from digestion to the perceived emergency. Chronic stress tells the body that it is in an ongoing state of emergency. This leads to poor digestion, which leads to poor nutrition, and greater toxic load on the intestinal system which has to deal with the poorly digested food.
The delicate junctions between the epithelial cells can break down under stress, resulting in leaky gut. A study in Life Science Alliance showed that this disruption occurs over the “stress-polarity signaling pathway”, where the gut permeability increases under stress. The increased permeability causes inflammation due to the foreign particles released into the body. One doctor in this study stated, “I think you’d be hard pressed to find a disease in which systemic inflammation is not a driver.” Because of the stress-polarity pathway, we can draw a direct link between stress and inflammation.
Stress causes an essential amino acid that intestinal cells need (glutamine) to be diverted. It can cause stomach acid to be secreted inappropriately and lead to ulcers. A study published in Gastroenterology showed that anxiety is directly increased when gut inflammation increases. A National Center for Biotechnology Information study showed that an increase in stress causes a significant change in gut flora within six days without a dietary change.
It’s worth noting that in the past, people would fast during times of stress. When you realize that stress is opening up the opportunity for unwanted food particles to enter the blood stream, perhaps there is a very practical health reason for fasting during times of stress!
Toxins in your diet can directly damage the thin epithelial layer and cause leaky gut. If you are reactive to certain foods, the inflammation caused as they travel across the intestinal lining invokes leaky gut — gluten is thought to be an inflammatory food universally.
Another factor is the make-up of your gut flora. Over 400 bacteria species exist in your intestines. Some aid digestion by helping break down food. Some are pathogenic, causing more harm than good. In proper balance, the bacteria form a beneficial ecosystem that we need for good digestion. Stressors upset the proper balance, inhibiting or harming the “good” bacteria and aiding the “bad”. Some bad bacteria give off toxins that spark inflammation and leaky gut. As the gut flora is imbalanced, the cycle of bad digestion gets worse. And as mentioned before, this condition affects your mental state, which may increase your desire for bad food, again making the problem worse. Probiotics can help improve the balance, but probiotics need a good environment themselves to thrive and multiply.
Dr Nemec’s Comments:
Stress — both conscious stress (stress that you are aware of) programs, and subconscious stress programs (which start ages 0-6 before conscious filters are developed) cause a breakdown of the tight junctions in the intestinal microvilli. This means the source of inflammation begins at a very early age in most people that develop any disease. We analyze and correct these programs in our comprehensive treatment and teaching program. So what are some steps to take to minimize the damage of this delicate lining? Eat a low carbohydrate plant based diet, take probiotics and stay in the moment. Jesus referred to this when he said that you should stay out of tomorrow because it will have enough trouble to handle when it comes so you should stay in each moment.