Tackling our stress can improve our gut health too.

75% of us say stress levels are so high we are finding it difficult to cope.  At one time we might have been alarmed at such figures but in our modern world we have rather come to take it for granted as an inevitable part of the lives we lead. This month we want to challenge you to look again at your own stress levels to see whether it is time for you to decide to act.

Stress comes in many forms and affects us all in different ways and is often associated with very difficult or challenging things (moments of disruption) that are happening in our lives.  These events are sometimes out of our control such a bereavement, redundancy, or high levels of financial difficulty.   Moving house and/or a relationship breakup are also known to be key triggers of stress.  At other times we do have more control over our stress levels but find it difficult to act – not allowing ourselves sufficient “me time”, not addressing sleep issues, perhaps not tackling a relationship problem.  Not easy, of course, but nevertheless something we could look to resolve.   At times, therefore, we start living with unacceptably high levels of stress, whether under our control or not, and the longer we leave it the greater the impact not only on our mental wellbeing, but also on our physical health.

Stress is our body’s reaction to excessive pressure and when something called ‘the stress response’ is triggered and our brain prompts the adrenal glands to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol.    When this happens our heart beats faster, breathing speeds up, blood is diverted from the digestive system to the brain and muscles and our senses sharpen.  The stress response, also known as ‘fight or flight’, has been an important survival mechanism of our ancestors for thousands of years.  In more modern days, rather than the risk being the saber-toothed tiger, it is now more likely to be the busy lives we lead, conflicting work and personal commitments, relationship issues or money worries that are causing our stress levels to be in the dangerous zone.  Small wonder we want to take flight from them, our modern-time equivalent of saber-toothed tigers.

Overwhelming and/or long-term stress known as chronic stress can have serious consequences on our ability to cope and perform, leading to plummeting resilience which in turn can cause physical and mental illness.  We can get irritable, suffer poor sleep, fatigue, difficulty concentrating.  Chronic stress can also lead to depression.  These are all well-established consequences of debilitating stress and we are to some extent already aware of them.   What we don’t often read about is the affects that stress has on our gut health other than the oft-mentioned irritable bowel disease (IBS)[1].      Gut health affects a surprisingly high number of us, with the NHS calculating the figure at as many as 4 in 10 of us at any one time[2] .The impact ranges from mild discomfort through to unbearable pain and long-term health complications.   Stress is often a significant contributor to our gut problems.

Stress or anxiety can often cause digestive issues, such as constipation or diarrhoea, and there is a close correlation between the brain and the gut.  When we are experiencing high levels of stress cortisol, which plays an important role in reducing inflammation, is redirected away from the digestive system which means that food ends up staying in the intestines rather than being digested.   This can lead to inflammation in the gut and disrupts bacteria from doing efficiently and effectively what it should be and is another potential cause of IBS.  We have trillions of microorganisms living inside our bodies called microbiome and they are an essential part of the gut.

Supporting our gut bacteria

A good intake of fibre is recommended in the form of fruit, root vegetables, beans, whole grain, oats and lentils to strengthen our immune system and digestive processes     Eating well, with some small adjustments to our diet and exercise levels really can make a difference.  Consider:

  • Taking probiotics such as yoghurt and kefir
  • Being physically active to help digestion
  • At the same time, measure your stress levels and if they can be reduced through acting then do so since high stress also contributes directly to the quantity and activity of our gut bacteria.
  • Look for ways to recognise and reduce the causes of personal or work-related stress, particularly those stress factors directly under your control.

None of these are enormous steps to take but they will make a difference and can fairly easily be achieved by you.

Important steps to take when feeling stressed:

So, this month try to readdress those stress issues which you have probably pushed to the back of your mind or simply come to accept as inevitable.  Give yourself a stress MOT, a regular check up.

  1. Understand what your body is telling you and how your body is reacting – look out for physical warning signs – extreme tiredness, headaches, tense muscles, irritability. Write them down to enable you to focus on them.
  2. Pinpoint the triggers to identify the underlying causes – keep a record of when you are feeling stressed, what happened and to plot patterns
  3. Consider the things you can and cannot control and focus on practical solutions to manage things you can change. Do not try to do everything at once, just choose one or two issues on which to concentrate and make the changes needed.
  4. Reflect on your own lifestyle. What would you really enjoy doing that would ease the pressure on you or enable you to switch off.   Again, avoid trying to do too much but incorporate one or two positive lifestyle changes following your stress check-up.  Practice self-care.

Five action points to prevent stress from making you ill

Sometimes more drastic action may be needed.   If stress is making you ill then you need to recognize the serious consequences of that stress and determine to take the action needed.  It is simply never in your interests to allow a significant health issue to go unaddressed and the longer your leave it the harder it becomes.   You will recognize all of the five action points below, but its time to look at them again and make some commitments.

  1. Create a good work-life balance plan across 7 days a week, allocating time for all the activities and commitments and building in sufficient rest periods, time to exercise, time for fun. If you are not doing this then ask yourself why you are putting yourself at risk.
  2. Eat a healthy diet including 5 a day, low fat food options and plenty of water
  3. Take a hard look at your alcohol consumption. If you are a smoker take another look at why you are risking your health.
  4. Consider whether you are really doing enough physical activity. Those 150 minutes per week of moderate physical exertion seems an easy target but evidence suggests that one in three of us fail to meet them.   How many minutes per week are you really taking in such exercise?
  5. Get more sleep! Eight hours per day may not be achievable, but too many of us are managing little more than five hours of sleep.  Try being asleep half an hour to an hour earlier, regularly. Sleep fundamentally improves our ability to maintain resilience and to cope better when under stress

Support in the workplace

Stress remains a major cause of both short term and long-term absence from work and many employers have a range of services and programmes in place to provide support for work and non-worked related matters.

And if stress is work-related, talk to your manager as they can undertake a stress risk assessment to identify where the issues lie, assess the impact, and explore ways to reduce or prevent unnecessary stress.[3]    Access to early intervention and professional help is key to managing our stress levels and preventing it getting to dangerous levels of breakdown and burnout.  Tackling the root causes is a good place to start, for mind and body.

We are now seeing the longer evenings of daylight, the warmth of the sun is returning, new life is emerging in the world around us.   Please go out there and enjoy it — and taking the straightforward steps suggested above will help you to do so.    I have a gut feeling that you will!

[1] https://nhs.uk

[2] https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/common-digestive-problems-and-how-to-treat-them/

[3] https://hse.gov.uk