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Treating Gut Inflammation: The Role of Stress and How to Manage It

Treating Gut Inflammation

Have you ever wondered how your thoughts and feelings could impact your gut health? Maybe you’ve noticed a flutter in your stomach before a big presentation or felt ‘gut-wrenched’ during stressful times. This is Mind-Gut Connection at work – an intriguing concept vital to our well-being. Now the interaction between psychological processes and the nervous and immune systems of the human body are being studied formally in a field called Psychoneuroimmunology.

This article explains in detail how chronic stress can play a significant role in our digestive health. We also provide practical, holistic strategies to manage your mind that can lead to a happier, healthier gut. We look at principles of Functional Medicine for improved Gut Health for a better, more balanced you.

The link between chronic stress and gut inflammation

There is a recently emerged field of Psychoneuroimmunology, which could explain how chronic stress can lead to gut inflammation and vice versa. This bidirectional relationship plays a crucial role in our overall physical and mental wellbeing. To put simply, chronic stress can set off a chain reaction leading to inflammation in the digestive system and vice versa.

Stress activates the HPA axis:

Chronic Stress activates the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis, inducing the hypothalamus to release Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone (CRH) and cortisol from adrenal). This, in turn, promotes the  production of proinflammatory cytokines interleukin (IL-1β) and Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha (TNF-α). These cytokines increase the intestinal permeability and inflammation.

Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and Vagus Nerve:

Stress activates the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) but it inhibits the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the main nerve of your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and controls specific body functions such as your digestion, heart rate and immune system. By inhibiting the vagus nerve, it  hampers the anti-inflammatory effects of the vagus nerve. Simultaneously, it promotes macrophage-induced TNF-α production. As a result, it aggravates inflammation within the gut.

Immune Dysfunction:

Our immune system has two main branches: the innate and adaptive responses. The innate response is like the quick-response team, immediately addressing any threat it encounters. The adaptive response is more specialized, creating customised defenses against specific invaders.

Chronic Stress is involved in both innate and adaptive immune responses. By regulating  specific immune cells and cytokine production, stress can tilt the immune system towards a proinflammatory state. This means the immune system perceives every situation as a potential threat and this leads to production of proinflammatory cytokines. This dysfunction contributes to perpetual gut inflammation, and health problems associated with it. 

Microbiome Dysbiosis and Barrier Function:

Besides impacting the immune system, chronic stress induces microbiome community dysbiosis – an imbalance in the bacterial community of the human gut. In a healthy gut, the bacterial community contributes to maintaining a robust intestinal barrier—a defense wall protecting the body from harmful substances. Dysbiosis induced by chronic stress can impair the intestinal barrier function, further exacerbating colonic inflammation. 

In summary, an understanding of the HPA axis, SNS, immune system and gut microbiome is essential to see the link between chronic stress and gut inflammation. This is the starting point for finding ways to manage stress and keep our gut healthy. 

De-stressing helps combat gut inflammation 

De-stressing or stress reduction techniques play a crucial part in addressing the factors mentioned above, the HPA axis, vagus nerve, immune system, and the microbiome. 

This, in turn, has a beneficial impact on reducing gut inflammation.

We learnt that chronic stress often throws the HPA axis into disarray, releasing stress hormones that contribute to inflammation. When we destress, cortisol, the primary stress hormone, begins to level out. This, in turn, reduces its inflammatory effects on the gut. 

When we destress, we activate the vagus nerve. Its influence counteracts the proinflammatory signals, released by the activation of the SNS. As a result, gut inflammation is subdued, fostering a healthier digestive environment.

Chronic stress weakens our immune defenses, making us more susceptible to inflammation and infections. By embracing relaxation, our immune system is no longer in a proinflammatory state.. This relaxed immune system can better manage any inflammatory challenges in the gut, contributing to a more resilient and balanced environment.

Our gut hosts trillions of microorganisms, collectively known as the microbiome. Chronic stress disrupts this microbial community, leading to dysbiosis and inflammation. When we destress, we restore the balance among different bacterial species, fostering a diverse and resilient microbial ecosystem. A healthier microbiome, in turn, contributes to a reduction in gut inflammation.

In summary, incorporating relaxation and stress reduction into our routine plays a crucial role in mitigating the biochemical reactions associated with gut inflammation. 

5 Stress Reduction techniques to control inflammation

Managing stress effectively can help control inflammation in the body. Here are 5 of my favorite tools to de-stress.

1. MBSR (Mindful Based Stress Reduction)

Intentionally bringing your attention to the present moment, without judgment, and with an attitude of curiosity and kindness. Mindfulness includes awareness of your thoughts and feelings as they come up. By practicing mindfulness and paying attention to your emotions, you will be better able to handle them in a thoughtful way rather than reacting automatically or out of habit. 

You will allow yourself to drop the worry and become happy as a way of being. 

2. Physiological sigh 

It is a real-time tool to de-stress. According to professor Andrew Huberman,  “physiological sigh, a big inhale through the nose and then a second sharp inhalation through the nose, in order to maximally inflate the alveoli of the lungs, and then a long, extended exhale until the lungs are empty—is the fastest way to de-stress in real time”

3. Adequate Sleep

Quality sleep is essential for stress reduction and overall health. Lack of sleep can contribute to higher cortisol release, increased inflammation and a sense of anxiety. Establishing a consistent sleep routine and creating a conducive sleep environment are vital for effective stress management.

4. Social Connection

Building and maintaining positive social connections can provide emotional support and a sense of belonging, reducing feelings of stress and loneliness. Strong social ties have been associated with lower levels of inflammation.

5. Healthy Nutrition

Adopting a balanced and nutritious diet can play a role in stress reduction and inflammation control. Foods rich in antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and other anti-inflammatory nutrients contribute to a healthier overall system. Magnesium plays a key role in relaxation and anti-inflammatory processes and is involved in various biochemical reactions in the body. Consider supplementing with high quality supplements if you are not getting enough of these essential nutrients in your diet. 

Other ways to reduce gut inflammation 

Work Holistically on the other Four Pillars of Health: Nutrition, Movement, Relationships, and Sleep

1. Nutrition:

Adopt an anti-inflammatory diet. Incorporate fiber-rich foods, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids. Personalize your approach by identifying foods that work best for you.

2. Movement/Exercise:

Physical activity isn’t just about staying fit; it significantly contributes to a healthy gut. Engage in gut-friendly workouts such as walking, yoga, or cycling. These exercises promote overall well-being and contribute to a thriving gut environment.

3. Relationships:

Positive relationships are not only good for the soul but also impact gut health. When stress is reduced through healthy relationships, the gut benefits. Take time to nurture positive connections and manage stress for a happier gut.

4. Sleep/Relaxation:

Quality sleep is a cornerstone of gut wellness. Improve your sleep hygiene by maintaining a consistent sleep schedule and creating a relaxing bedtime routine. Recognize the link between inadequate sleep and gut inflammation, emphasizing the importance of rest in achieving optimal gut health.

Improve Gut Microbiome and Address Dysbiosis

Enhance diversity of gut microbiome by incorporating fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut into your diet. These foods introduce beneficial bacteria to support a balanced and thriving gut ecosystem.

Add the Right Probiotics for Your Microbiome Needs

Tailor your probiotic intake to your unique microbiome. Consider probiotic-rich foods like kefir or supplements with specific strains beneficial for your gut. Consider talking to a functional medicine expert to understand your specific requirements. 

Remove Food Sensitivities, Intolerance, and Allergies

Identify and eliminate trigger foods by addressing sensitivities, intolerance, and allergies. Keep a food diary to track reactions. Consider getting a food sensitivity test to accurately pinpoint offending foods. 

Check and Work on Small Intestinal Bowel Overgrowth (SIBO)

Explore Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) if you suspect imbalances. Diagnosis often involves breath tests, consult with a healthcare professional for guidance.

Heal Intestinal Permeability (Leaky Gut) with Supplements

For those dealing with leaky gut, certain supplements can aid in healing the intestinal lining. Consider incorporating glutamine, zinc, and quercetin into your routine after consulting with a healthcare professional.

Removing Toxins and Conducting Heavy Metal Detox

Become aware of toxins impacting gut health, including amalgam fillings and heavy metals. Safely remove amalgam fillings if necessary, and consider a gentle detoxification process under professional guidance to reduce heavy metal exposure.

Reduce Intake of Insecticides, Pesticides, and Heavy Metals

Minimize exposure to harmful substances in your food and water. Opt for organic produce to reduce pesticide intake, invest in a water filter to limit heavy metal exposure, and be mindful of the sources of your food and water.

Minimize Intake of Antibiotics and Oral Contraceptive Pills

Recognize the potential impact of antibiotics and oral contraceptives on the gut microbiome. Consult with your healthcare provider to explore alternative strategies or mitigations, ensuring your gut health is considered in your overall health plan.

Why is it important or helpful to combat gut inflammation?

Intestinal manifestations of gut inflammation are  stomach aches, digestive pain, diarrhea, constipation, fatigue, bloating, and cramping. These are symptoms related to IBS, colitis, crohn’s, GERD etc. 

Long term gut inflammation can have extra-intestinal manifestations – for example chronic conditions like cancer, like anxiety, depression, autoimmune conditions, diabetes, heart disease, dementia, eczema.

Gut inflammation can also cause Neurodevelopmental disorders, like autism, neurodegenerative disorders, like Parkinson’s disease and nerve-related pain disorders, like multiple sclerosis.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the intricate relationship between chronic stress and gut inflammation is a critical aspect of our overall well-being. Understanding how stress triggers inflammation within the digestive system throws light on the importance of stress management. By adopting stress reduction techniques and focusing on the pillars of health, such as nutrition, sleep, and social connections, we can proactively treat gut inflammation and its potential long-term health consequences. Prioritizing gut health is a vital step toward a happier, healthier life.

Dr Menka Gupta

IFMCP, MSc, MBBS

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