With research on the gut-brain axis demonstrating that changes in intestinal bacteria may play a significant role in the psyche and vice versa, where stress can cause digestive disorders due to high levels of cortisol production and the generation of additional pathogen-causing bacteria, it’s important to be attentive to both body and mind.
While we can directly target the gut with prebiotics (the ‘fertilizer’ for our gut) and probiotics (the ‘good’ bacteria) for a healthy gut microbiome, if you’re feeling out of balance, Functional Medicine Nutritionist and Cognitive Behavioral Therapist Dana James is here to explain how stress can affect your gut and debunk the myths on bloating, cravings and boundaries.
Which comes first, gut issues or stress?
Both: it’s bi-directional. If you’re stressed, you can alter the gut microbiome towards more pathogenic microbes (the organisms that cause disease) but you can also adversely affect the gut microbiome through a poor diet, environmental toxins and medication usage. For a healthy gut microbiome, you’ll need to consider your thoughts just as much as what you put into your mouth.
What are the first steps to breaking the cycle in terms of gut issues and stress?
When you suppress your emotions because you do not want to confront the issue (either consciously or unconsciously), this can present itself as distention and constipation.
In psychology, there is a well-known phrase, “name it to tame it”, which means acknowledge how you are feeling versus resisting it. The hidden emotion is often uncertainty, repressed anger, overwhelm, helplessness or a lack of safety; emotional or financial.
Start by putting pen to paper and explore what is bothering you and why, then ask what can be done about it. Is there an action that is required or a change in perception? Follow through on it.
How does stress impact our gut?
Cortisol, adrenaline, and nor-adrenaline (the stress hormones) can inhibit the proliferation of the “good” bacteria and stimulate the proliferation of bad bacteria and yeast. Similarly, the gut microbiome can communicate to the brain through cortisol. The more out-of-balance the gut microbiome is, the more likely that gut inflammation will reach the brain. This brain inflammation can lead to impaired cognition and mood disorders. This, in turn, can lead to junk food choices which can make the gut microbiome worse!
What do you think poses the biggest threat to our relationship with food while on lockdown?
Collective uncertainty leading to overeating as well as constant trips back and forth to the kitchen to appease boredom.
Which foods need the biggest focus for keeping our stress in check and our guts happy?
It’s more the avoidance of certain foods, like overly refined carbohydrates, provided that limitation does not add further stress! There is nothing wrong with the occasional oreo or shortbread just not the entire packet!
What are the biggest misconceptions about food and health?
That food is the ultimate precursor to health. It is one of them but not the only factor. If you don't keep your perception of stressors in check, your physical body will show the repercussions, irrespective of a good diet. However, a good diet is certainly better than a sub-par one.
Can stress management really keep bloating under control?
100% but by the same token if you are persistently bloated after consuming food, it’s a gut microbiome issue and you can’t meditate your way out of it!
Why do we crave certain foods when we’re stressed?
Stress alters your neurotransmitters by suppressing serotonin and dopamine. The quickest way to bolster these neurochemicals is through sugar but it’s a momentary spike before it decreases again. Eating also distracts you from the stress you are facing. If you have an unhealthy relationship with food, the overeating can lead to a whole lot of self-flagellating, which is worse than the initial stressor.
Is bloating always a sign that something is wrong?
Yes, while it is common, it is not normal. Please don’t ignore it. Observe your bloating. If it happens immediately after food, it’s a gut microbial issue in the small intestine. If it’s 90 minutes after food, it’s in the large intestine. If the bloating is random, it can be a food sensitivity, not a microbial issue. It can also be from emotional suppression. Tracking your symptoms will inform you as to whether it is physical or emotional or both.
How do we maintain routine with meals when access to groceries is now limited?
This depends on where you live. In many places, groceries are still on the shelves, having been refilled after the initial fear of “not enough”. But remember, farmers are still harvesting. It must be sold or it will go to waste. Find your local farmers market as they will be doing online deliveries or curbside pickup.
While you may not be able to buy your usual foodstuffs from your preferred market, you are being asked to find local produce stores. I have an Italian grocery store in my neighbourhood that I didn’t know existed until quarantine. I now shop there for canned beans, pasta, tuna, eggs and rotisserie chicken. My hope is that post-quarantine, we, as a collective, can shop locally supporting farmers, butchers and bakeries.
And how do we maintain routine now we have unlimited access to our kitchens?
Establish boundaries! Make a rule that you don’t go into the kitchen more than four times a day for food. Breakfast, lunch, a snack and dinner. If you enter the kitchen more than that, it’s for a beverage. And if you go beyond this, ask why. What are you really searching for?