The Biggest Secrets Behind Stress and Your Gut

gut wellness Dec 07, 2021
The Biggest Secrets Behind Stress and Your Gut


When anxieties run high, do you run to the bathroom? Does your GI issue “flare” when you are under increased stress? This week, focuses on the link between the brain and the gut! There is the truth behind having a “nervous tummy.”  Let’s dive into The Biggest Secrets Behind Stress and Your Gut



That Other Nervous System

Many of us have heard about the “two nervous systems.” These include sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) systems. What you may not have heard about is another nervous system, the ENTERIC nervous system (ENS).

The ENS is a mini-brain, located in your abdomen. It runs throughout the belly and is responsible for gastrointestinal function. The most interesting part of this system is the interconnectedness it shares with the hormones in your brain.

Serotonin, dopamine, and epinephrine (adrenaline) are neurotransmitters that exist inside the brain and the ENS. So, if you are nervous, depressed, or angry, the chemicals in your brain and your gut change.



This relationship is called the brain-gut axis. The brain-gut axis is the link between GI conditions and mental health as it has a major impact on the microbiome. At times of increased stress, the aforementioned hormones shift and impact how the gut breaks down nutrients. Normally, the gut absorbs amino acids and fats for nutrition and fiber absorbs water in the gut to aid in transit. However, with increased stress, the gut will break down amino acids and fats and ferment fiber into short-chain fatty acids. This change in digestion leads to a less-diverse microbiome which can allow unhealthy microorganisms to thrive and cause disease by impacting gut motility and function.

The brain-gut axis is bidirectional, not only can stress change bowel function, but the reverse also is true. When unhealthy microorganisms overgrow, they can alter neurotransmitters in the ENS and increase inflammation which alters gut motility and function.


The Microbiome Can Impact Stress and the Gut

Inflammation caused by unhealthy bacteria is not confined to the gut. This inflammation also distracts the immune system. Recall from our article, 5 EMPOWERING TIPS TO BOOST AND UNDERSTAND YOUR IMMUNITY, the gut is a barrier immune organ. Instead of fighting infection, the immune system shifts toward fighting the unhealthy gut microbiome leading to Dysbiosis. In this case, your body’s natural protectors have shifted toward villains. 

Breaks in the barrier function between your cells in the gut can lead to further issues including Leaky Gut. In this situation, bacteria move from the gut into the bloodstream and lead to further inflammation as the immune system acts to attack the bacteria. The result is bloating, pain, change in bowel habits, fatigue, and joint aches.


Harnessing the Power of the ENS

How can we utilize the brain-gut axis to promote health?


Let’s start with the brain. In the same way that stress can negatively impact bowel function, stress reduction can have a positive impact on the gut. This can be achieved through mindfulness.



Mindfulness is the practice of achieving a mental state of focus on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting your emotions. Sounds easy enough, yet practicing mindfulness through meditation takes time, consistency, and effort.

Mindfulness training can be practiced anywhere and anytime. There are many apps and Youtube videos available to help you get started if you are not sure what to do. This practice can include body scanning, breath work, progressive muscle relaxation and guided imagery.

Studies of mindfulness show benefit for people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD, like Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s Disease). Meditation helps to remodel harmful pathways formed in the brain-gut axis due to chronic inflammation and irritation from these disease states. The end result is an undoing of links between inflammatory states in the gut and irritation in the mind.



The brain-gut link also can be improved by influencing the gut-habitat using psychobiotics which are more commonly known as probiotics. As stated above, the relationship between the microbiome and the psychological state is direct. So, if you remodel your microbiome with prebiotics (good food) and probiotics (supplements and food), you can improve your psychological state. 



The most commonly offered healthy strains of probiotic bacteria include Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus. Like most things in life, diversity is key. Many studies have evaluated the interaction between bacteria and the body showing the influence on conditions such as depression, social stress, and anxiety. See the below chart for a review of good bugs and their effects.




B. bifidum

Increases absorption of vitamins B and K; boosts mood

B. infantis

Reduces IBS symptoms and relaxes mood

B. longum

Improves depression, anxiety, mood, IBS

L. plantarum

Increases serotonin and dopamine

L. acidophilus

Improves nutrient absorption

L. helveticus

Lowers anxiety

*IBS = irritable bowel syndrome, B.=Bifidobacterium, L.= Lactobacillus

In addition to pills, beneficial bacteria can be obtained from readily-available food sources. In the table below, there are some examples of natural probiotic sources listed with their predominant bacteria. It is common for foods to have multiple bacteria and as diversity is key, getting healthy bacteria from a variety of foods is preferred to supplementation.


Probiotic Food





L. plantarum


L. plantarum

Greek Yogurt

B. infantis, bifidum and/or Lactobacillus


B. infantis, bifidum and/or Lactobacillus


L. plantarum and/or B. bifidum

* B.=Bifidobacterium, L.= Lactobacillus

Want to learn how to make kombucha? SEE our article on the how-tos of Kombucha Craft.



Timing matters. The greatest effects of probiotic supplements occur when they are ingested before meals, not after. 



Speaking of food, certain foods may boost the microbiome and independently improve mood. For a discussion of the relationship of certain nutrients and your biome SEE Our Remodeling the Microbiome articles. In general, eat REAL FOOD!


At the top of the list of mood-boosting foods is omega-3 fatty acids. Found in nuts, fish and certain cooking oils, omega-3’s improve the structure of cells and the signaling of neurohormones and may directly improve conditions like depression.  

These foods also contain amino acid precursors of brain hormones like tryptophan (makes serotonin). Studies show that a boost in omega-3 and nut consumption may boost mood.


B Vitamins

As listed in the table above, B vitamins may influence your microbiome. Not only do B vitamins serve as prebiotics to support healthy microbiome organisms, but also may directly influence neurochemicals such as dopamine and serotonin. Furthermore, B vitamins help modulate insulin sensitivity, which can greatly impact mood. Food such as beans, lentils, and oats contain fiber as well as B vitamins making these foods useful for mood and for regulation of blood sugar.


Caffeine blocks adenosine, a compound that causes sleepiness, to boost alertness. Foods that contain caffeine also may influence mood directly by increasing levels of serotonin and dopamine by binding the same receptors as cannabis. These effects are in addition to the effect of caffeine as they are observed even with decaffeinated coffee. These same effects are observed with dark chocolate!



FODMAPS stands for fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols. The body cannot break down these compounds. Instead, they react with bacteria and are fermented in the bowels leading to inflammation (similar to what is described above as part of the impact of stress on the bowels). Categories of FODMAPS are:

  1. Frucose – sugar in fruit, table sugar and some veggies
  2. Lactose – milk, cheese, ice cream, certain yogurts
  3. Fructans – grains (wheat, rye, barley)
  4. Galactans – legumes (beans and peanuts)
  5. Polyols – sugar alcohols in preserved foods with sweeteners like sorbitol (in gum), xylitol



Avoiding FODMAPS improves GI function, but can be restrictive

The key is experimentation with systematic re-introduction of food. In general, meat is okay as are most vegetables, oats, corn, nuts, herbs, spices, and natural sweeteners like maple. It may be helpful to keep a symptom diary as foods are re-introduced to help in understanding how different foods impact you. Follow this link for more detail:



To improve bowel function and manage the impact of psychological stress, embrace the relationship between your gut and your mind. Take comfort in knowing that with mindfulness, eating foods containing probiotics, omega-3s, B vitamins, fiber, and caffeine you can influence the brain-gut axis.



(that Your Doctor Won’t Tell You)

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