Chronic stress is one of the most common causes of leaky gut and bloating. You’ve probably heard this before. But do you know why?
In the past, I always regarded the notion of chronic stress playing a significant role in harming our health as a cliché platitude. So when I initially learned chronic stress is often a significant causal factor of leaky gut, I was not surprised. But it took having to fix my own gut for me to really investigate the mechanisms by which chronic stress degrades our gut health. I had to understand exactly how stress tears our gut apart so that I could understand how to reverse its damaging effects. In order to keep this article as a quick and practical easy read, I summarized the main points. If you are interested in a more detailed look into all the physiological mechanisms involved in stress and leaky gut, I’ve referenced the scientific studies at the end of this article.
CHRONIC STRESS HAS BEEN SHOWN TO CAUSE
Thinning of the gut mucous membrane
Decreased blood flow to the intestinal tract
Decreased stomach acid secretion
Slowing of stomach and small intestinal motility
Let’s look into a few of these so we are able to better understand why we must include stress mitigation and reduction as part of any gut optimization strategy. Not just an afterthought relegated secondary to supplements, or a token check box on the list of to-dos.
Leaky gut is a condition characterized by increased intestinal permeability. Meaning, your intestines are allowing a greater amount of intestinal (luminal) contents into your body. This includes food but also toxins. When toxins (particularly one called lipopolysaccharide) chronically cross the intestinal barrier at high rates, your body gets inflamed as does your body fat. Good luck getting your dream body in this state. Your dream body might be the least of your concerns if leaky gut gets out of hand for too long. This increased toxic exposure from leaky gut is a result and cause of many non-communicable diseases such as arthritis, type 2 diabetes (insulin resistance), asthma, heart disease and a plethora of autoimmune conditions…. Seriously, all of those and more.
How does stress cause leaky gut?
Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) to release norepinephrine. At the intestinal cells this ultimately relaxes the proteins (Junctional complexes) that hold them tightly together. When the Junctional complexes of your intestines are relaxed, the cells are no longer snuggly touching each other and more nutrients like sodium, glucose and water can enter your body to be used to meet the demands of the stress. That’s great! However, when your intestinal cells are “loose” lipopolysaccharide also finds its way into your blood stream. This toxin activates certain immune and inflammatory agents which further relaxes your junctional complexes creating a state of inflammation. You don’t want this physiological state sustained chronically without recovery.
Slowing of stomach and small intestinal motility
Normally the highly acidic environment of the stomach does not allow bacteria to grow in the small intestine which is food’s next stop after the stomach. During chronic stress we produce less stomach acid. With less stomach acid, more bacteria are able to grow and food putrefies.
Because your sympathetic nervous system is activated due to stress, the motility (bowel movements) of the small intestine is impaired which worsens bacterial overgrowth and weakens the immune system of the intestine. When intestinal motility slows, it’s like water that becomes stagnant; stagnant water fosters bacterial growth while running water does not. This is in part where bloating happens.
Stress favors bacteria that eat our mucus layer, likely because their metabolites (waste-products) provide energy for our cells to help meet the demands of our stress. So now there is increased mucus foraging bacteria in the small intestine, unmoved because of the impaired motility. At the same time, the protective mucous membrane in the intestine has become worn and thin. It becomes worn thin because the structure/integrity of the mucus membrane is subject to greater amounts of bacteria that eat it, along with a decrease in gene activation that builds the mucus. All due to chronic stress.
When you don’t have a strong mucus layer in your intestines, you don’t have an ideal environment for good bacteria to thrive. Also, seeing as how our mucus layer protects us from pathogens, our protective layer is compromised and now vulnerable to leaky gut.
These occurrences can now lead to small intestinal bacteria overgrowth which causes constipation and bloating after eating. It also causes brain fog, fatigue and a host of other symptoms. Again, in part all caused by chronic stress.
I realize there are many stressors that we don’t have full control over. However, there are habits and activities that can counteract stress. There are certain food patterns that also counteract stress via b vitamin and serotonin production. There are simple ways to reduce stress induced cortisol at night to keep you from coming home and stress eating.
No one technique or supplement is a panacea. That is not how true health is built. Rather it is the sheer accumulative weight of many positive things over time that does the trick, and this holds true for gut health as it relates to stress as well. Stress cannot be an afterthought in your gut healing protocol. Stress reduction must be a primary area of focus. Everything else should augment that focus.