Free Toolkit

How Stress Impacts Your Gut: What Your Doctor Hasn't Told You

gut health stress Oct 31, 2022
Functional medicine gut health and stress

How Stress Impacts Your Gut Health

What Your Doctor Hasn't Told You

Stress.  Never ending emails.  Your boss adding an impromptu meeting invite to "check in". Looking at your bank account and seeing less than you'd like. Trying to have a conversation with a loved one only to find one of you is blowing up or melting down.  You may notice that pit in your stomach just thinking about it.  

Everyone knows that stress impacts our health.  Chronic stress is associated with many health conditions and diagnoses from the heart and brain, to immunity and the gut.  

If you're wondering if your gut health is compromised by stress- check out my free Stress Impact Quiz.  It will take you less than two minutes and you'll get immediate access to personalized tips to help improve your wellbeing. 

Here are 5 ways that stress has a direct impact on the function and wellbeing of your gut and what you can do about it.

Stress- Gut Connection

1. Stress impacts motility

Your gut is a long tube that starts with your mouth.  Your nervous system moves food and nutrients along at a certain pace that allows for nutrients to be adequately absorbed.  Too fast and you have loose, unformed stools that may contain undigested food and leave you with nutrient insufficiencies.  Too slow and you end up constipated, uncomfortable and unable to properly detoxify. Perception of psychological stress either speeds things up or slows things down- both of which can increase imperceptible physical stressors and perpetuate the stress cycle. 

2. Stress impacts the gut lining

The gut is very picky about what it lets in and out. It uses a layer of mucus within the gut to protect the intestinal walls from harmful bacteria and toxins.  Stress affects the lining of the gut in two important ways.  One, it loosens the junctions between the cell walls that line the intestines.  This allows particles to enter the blood stream that normally wouldn't, such as whole food particles.  This often gets diagnoses as food sensitivities and is a hallmark of "leaky gut".  Stress (primarily through the impact of stress hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine) also causes a breakdown in the mucus lining the intestinal walls.  This leads to greater risk of damage from microbial guests (such as bacteria, fungi, and parasites) and toxins. 

3. Stress impacts amount of stomach acid

You may have heard that stress increases stomach acid.  While this is a myth- stress does still have an impact.  Chronic stress reduces the amount of acid the stomach produces, a condition called hypochlorhydria.  The acid in your stomach plays an important role in breaking down food so that it is digestible by the small intestine.  It also acts like a firewall for bacteria, parasites, and other unwelcome visitors. Lacking stomach acid leaves your body vulnerable to nutritional insufficiency, irritation from undigested food, and inflammation/infection.  Stress used to be blamed for ulcers because of too much stomach acid, but now we understand that ulcers are most commonly caused by an infection with H.pylori, a pathogen that takes hold when there isn't enough stomach acid to kill it.

4. Stress increases sympathetic nervous system activation and plays a role in hiatal hernia

In a normal body, the esophagus carries food through the chest, passing by the heart, lungs, and diaphragm before it connects with the stomach sitting just below the diaphragm.  The esophagus is a thin muscular muscle that contracts and relaxes to move food through.  The muscle of the esophagus is controlled by nerves that come from the cervical and thoracic (neck and upper back) spinal column as well as the vagus nerve.  Under chronic stress in a fight or flight state, these nerves can become over-activated to send signals for contraction and just like the muscles in your shoulders and neck may become over activated (ever found your shoulders up by your ears?) so can the esophagus.  When this happens, your stomach gives way and moves up into your chest cavity causing whats called a hiatal hernia.  It doesn't happen to everyone, but when it does occur it vastly influences how you feel and your ability to digest nutrients.  Hiatal hernia is a cause of heart burn, discomfort, maldigestion, and nutritional insufficiencies. 

5.  Stress causes changes in blood sugar that contribute to cravings, alterations in food intake, and microbiome changes

Ever felt manic energy like you could get anything done, only to find yourself later trembling, hangry and unable to focus.  Blood sugar can fluctuate dramatically even in those not diagnosed with diabetes.  When you're body sensing your blood sugar dropping, it sends out the alarm signals to make you hungry for easily digestible foods- things that are often highly processed and loaded with sugar. Processed foods and sugar feed you, and they also feed your gut microbiome- the microbial guests you carry with you always that you need.  What you feed them causes certain guests to multiply and certain guests to die off or move on.  Stress changes what you eat, and as a result, changes your microbiome leading to a reduction in guests that contribute to your wellbeing and an increase in guests that negatively impact your health by releasing toxins and causing inflammation and irritation, sometimes even outright infection.

What you can do about it

Thankfully, there is a lot you can do about it.  Here is a short list of some good places to start.

1. Focus on colorful fresh fruits and vegetables

Try to eat the rainbow every day.  Fresh fruit and vegetables contain lots of wonderful nutrients and phytonutrients that nourish you and your microbiome.

2. Balance your blood sugar

Aim to reduce sugar and processed foods.  Focus instead on high quality proteins that will help steady your blood sugar and keep you off the rollercoaster.

3. Practice mindful eating

Mindful eating helps you slow down with meals and improves digestion.  Try the One Minute Pause before you start to eat (you can download the app for accountability). Chew your food thoroughly, each bite about 20-30 times before swallowing.

4. Check for food sensitivities

Checking for food sensitivities can be accomplished in a couple ways.  Either through an elimination diet challenge or with testing.  Both are best done with a professional who can guide you in the proper steps to make sure you get the most information from it.

5. Check for maldigestion

Maldigestion is the inability of the body to properly digest nutrients to make them available for absorption. You can work with a professional to guide you on proper testing with a comprehensive stool test or with a supplement challenge.

6. Build up practices that move you to a restful state

Stress may often keep your body in a state of fight or flight, or withdrawn and immobilized.  You can use practices such as mindfulness or meditation to help improve your body's adaptability to come back to a state of rest, healing, and nourishment. The vagus nerve is a key mediator in telling the body which state to be in.  Activities that improve ventral vagus innervation (the rest, digest, and heal state) include things such as diaphragmatic breathing, gargling, laughter and safe connection with others. Check out the podcast with Dr. Tony Ratkovic on The Crooked Spine Show were we talk about how to do this in the episode "You Can Control How You Feel & How You Heal".


You can explore these opportunities and start seeing how much better you could feel by working with a Functional Medicine Provider who is trained and versed in the specialty tests and techniques you may need to correct these imbalances.

Your body is making these changes for a reason.  They are wise and thoughtful decisions by the body.  In many cases, you can take intelligent steps to come alongside your body to help it to heal. 


As always- may you have everything you need to heal


Christine Patterson, DNP, NP-C

Founder Vital Journey Wellness

Start working with me today!

Apply here

Stay connected with news and updates!

Join our mailing list to receive cutting edge health tips, strategies to maximize your energy + wellbeing, and more.
Don't worry, your information will not be shared.

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.