The Importance of Lowering Stress to Improve Gut Health and Reduce Risks of Disease
This week is a time to give thanks and appreciate all we have. While this is most ideal aspect of the holiday season, it is unfortunately, not the only aspect for many of us. Over 60% of us have heightened levels of stress over the next six weeks. When we get stressed, whether it's our reactions to a surprise visit from family, that unexpected repair bill, our child's health, the news, whatever it is, our body is trained to stop the nerve and energy flow to our gut and instead push it towards our muscles. Stress will direct your body's resources to your muscles so we can run away from that proverbial lion!
So what happens to our gastrointestinal tract (GI tract) when we get stressed? Well, for one thing, we may find our bowels quit moving, or for some, we experience diarrhea. That was me in my first year of teaching.....
Stress also prevents or interferes with the production of essential chemicals that are essential for digestion to occur. These include pancreatic enzymes, hydrocholoric acid and intrinsic factor, as well as an orchestra of biochemicals that allow our digestive system to successfully break down and metabolize our foods.
The GI tract is a tube where our food and drink is broken down into smaller compounds that are absorbed into our bloodstream. There is a single layer of cells that protects the inside of our body from what's coming down the pike from the outside world. When we are stressed, these cells , the gatekeepers who selectively keep some things out (like bacteria) and other things in (nutrients) start to lose their ability to keep the gates shut. Undigested food particles and even bacteria start leaking out into the bloodstream. The cell lining becomes more permeable, what's known as "leaky gut".
Our microbes outnumber us by upwards to 3:1. Furthermore genetically, we are 1 per cent human genes and 99% microbial genes. Some health leaders have quipped that we might be considered more microbial than human! We could say that this microbial community, now known as the "microbiome" acts like an "organ". The largest part of it inhabits our GI tract, getting more numerous the lower down you go.
What happens next in this saga? You've probably heard that about 70% of our immune system is in the gut. It is composed of the mucus around this epithelial layer, and also specialized immune cells (the neighborhood police) who live in the basement under the one cell layer. When it starts leaking, the police make quite a squawk and start producing inflammatory producing chemicals.
These chemicals or cytokines cause more inflammation and usually wind up in your susceptible or problem child areas; it could be your thyroid, your bones and joints, your gut itself, your brain or other areas of your body. Chronic inflammation is behind every chronic condition humans experience in the modern world. Heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's', gastrointestinal diseases, Graves Hashimoto's, the list goes on.
Our saga is incomplete without the star players - our unique microbiome, which simply put is the unique community of microbes that live all throughout our body. They are most numerous in our lower gut. They sit at that one celled layer andmodulate what is happening there. They react to what is coming down the pike. They do these by increasing our decreasing the inflammatory response our immune system has to what we have eaten. They are the go-betweens between the police and the outside world. Some of them actually make short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that feed the guard or gatekeeper cells. Some prevent the bad guys or "pathogenic" microbes from growing in numbers. Others like E. Coli have LPS (lipopolysaccharide) in their membrane. It is a nasty substance that actually makes the gut lining leakier. Others quiet down the inflammatory response.
Stress affects both the quality and quantity of the microbial players. This is akin to what happens when we take a broad spectrum antibiotic that kills just about everything. Not only have we reduced the population of microbes, but we have changed the player roster. There are always opportunistic players (just like how some people make tons of money during economic downturns or depressions). After stress, we have a new team. These new guys tend to be bullies. They've waited for their chance, and they are going to take advantage and cause lots of trouble. They are going to make you feel even more stressed, anxious, depressed, fat, sick and tired.
So what to do, what to do?
How do we help our body deal with more stress, and be more resilient?
Here's my list of helpful practices in more detail:
- Drink more water (filtered is best)
- Get enough magnesium; organic green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds. Foods with exceptionally high magnesium content include seaweed, coriander, pumpkin seeds, unsweetened cocoa powder, and almond butter
- Get enough sleep
- Disconnect from tech, TV, etc at least a half hour before bed
- Get your room as dark as possible
- Take a hot bath with Epsom salts
- Drink some relaxing teas such as valerian or chamomile with an added TBSP of powdered gelatin (high in glycine which is calming)
- The more sleep you can get before midnight, the better
- Have a little sleep ritual that can include meditation, prayer, etc.
- "Earthing sheets or mats" - ask me about this
- Meditate, pray, do deep breathing, give thanks
- Don't skip meals, try to stay with your regular meal schedule so you don't mess up your blood sugar
- Regular movement, walking, running, interval training, whatever your usual routines are, try to keep them even if you do less
- Watch funny movies or laugh with friends
- Probiotics (unless you have SIBO)
- Use aromatherapy in your home (diffuser, your handkerchief, pillow or warm compresses).
- ylang ylang
- lemon balm
- Get a massage
- Making love
- Hemp oil CBD's - ask me about Elixinol
- Keep to your routines as much as possible. Our mantra as Waldorf teachers was "rhythm replaces strength". Think of how the whole solar system predictably moves in relationship to all.
- Emotional Freedom Technique EFT)