Dr Lydia Altini – Health Coach
We have all experienced the effects of emotions like fear, anxiety and worry in our gut – from “butterflies in the stomach” to not being able to digest a meal properly. This is quite normal and it occurs because our brain and the separate enteric nervous system – often referred to as our “second brain”, communicate with each other via the Vagus nerve.
It’s when we experience chronic stress however that more serious issues can arise. Remember that not all stress is bad. We need some degree of stress in our lives to feel challenged and stimulated. Stress becomes harmful when we feel we don’t have any control over what is happening to us. Chronically high levels of stress hormones like cortisol can change the structure and function of the gut and negatively impact our microbiome. Our immune system becomes suppressed or overly reactive and inflammation results. Chronic stress can also get in the way of us eating healthy foods. The body in a state of stress is looking for energy and ultra-processed foods become very attractive. But high sugar, high fat foods are also highly inflammatory and simply add fuel to the fire.
Mind-body approaches such as mindfulness meditation, breathing exercises and yoga have all been shown to decrease the body’s stress response by enhancing the parasympathetic response (rest and digest), dampening down the sympathetic response (fight or flight) and decreasing inflammation. They improve gastrointestinal symptoms as well as mood. But we can also make ourselves more resilient to the effects of stress by strengthening our gut microbiome. By eating a plant-based diet with little meat and few refined carbohydrates, we reduce intestinal inflammation. Restoring the health of the gut can help restore the health of the mind. It works both ways!