Stress and Digestion: Can You Really Trust Your Gut?
By: Shannon Green
I often tell people that everything goes downhill, physically, after you turn 25. It’s the type of thing I say with an “LOL” but I’m totally serious. Generally, when I say this around a group of women who are 25+, they SQUEAL in agreement. This statement has been met with “my boobs aren’t the same anymore” or “my back started hurting a few weeks after my 25th birthday” and a myriad of other complaints pertaining to sleep, allergies, and tummy issues. Tummy issues are by far the most popular and hilarious topic across the board.
When I was 25 I finished grad school, got married, moved to NYC, and started my first post-grad job. All of these things were great, but also quite stressful and anxiety provoking. In the midst of adulting at its finest, I started to feel like I was deteriorating physically. I found myself late for work often because had to run BACK to the toilet after I was dressed and ready to head out. I was always bloated and getting congratulated for the pregnancy that did not exist. Don’t even get me started on the random nausea and abdominal pain. The anxiety I experienced trying to figure out a polite way to tell my boss that I would be late (again) because I was “pooping my brains out” was comical. This was the last thing I needed while also trying to navigate this new life I was living. I felt alone and, quite frankly, embarrassed. Carrying Gas-X and Beano in your purse isn’t exactly a confidence booster.
I went to see a gastroenterologist, which was frightening and enlightening. Of course, they started off with the worst prognoses and most expensive tests to run. During this time I was put on a Low FODMAP diet while they tried to figure out the problem. If you’ve never heard of this diet, just google “world’s worst diet. FODMAP are types of carbs that draw water into your digestive tract, which make you bloated. If you eat too much of them, they can hang around in your gut and ferment. I essentially had to cut out, wheat, garlic, many fruits and sugars, dairy, and much more. As a self proclaimed foodie who was excited to try all the restaurants in my new city, this was devastating. I started to feel pretty depressed and I recoiled from the few friends I had in the city. You don’t realize how much of your social life revolves around food until you’re on a strict diet. I didn’t want to go to brunch and watch people enjoy the foods I couldn’t. I didn’t want to have lunch with my new coworkers because I was pretty sure there was nothing on the menu that would work for me.
I was eventually diagnosed with SIBO and I got to embark on the very fun journey of slowly reintroducing certain foods into my diet and figuring out which ones would cause me pain (Yay Me!).While I learned to pay more attention to my diet, I found something interesting. Not only did I notice which foods would cause me pain, but also which experiences. I was pretty much guaranteed to have the bubble-guts if I was under a lot of stress or feeling anxious for a long period of time, no matter what I ate.
I hadn’t previously thought about how much the gut is related to our mental health. The gut’s nickname is literally the “second-brain”. Think about the phrase “go with your gut”. There is a correlation between having mental health problems and having gastrointestinal symptoms like heartburn, indigestion, acid reflux, bloating, pain, constipation, and/or diarrhea (Mental Health America). Have you ever had a "gut-wrenching" experience? Do certain situations make you "feel nauseous"? Have you ever felt "butterflies" in your stomach? These expressions exist because the gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to emotion (Harvard Health). It’s tough to treat tummy issues without considering the role of stress and emotion.
Stress, depression, and other psychological factors can affect movement and contractions of the GI (Gastrointestinal) tract, make inflammation worse, and make us more susceptible to infection. Studies have revealed that patients who tried psychologically based approaches had greater improvement in their digestive symptoms than patients who only received conventional medical treatment.
Moral of the story? Diet alone isn’t always the solitary cause or treatment for gut issues. It helps to couple dietary changes with self care, therapy, etc. Take a step back and evaluate what is causing you stress/anxiety and determine what you can remove. In my situation, I couldn’t remove living in a new city or a new job. When you’re in a situation like that, instead of subtracting stressors, you need to add buffers. Buffers are things that can offset/distract from the stressors. For me, this meant doing all the touristy things I could in my new city, putting in effort to commute to see the few people I knew in New York, and finding quick ways to spark joy in the middle of the work day. I would run to the nail salon to get a 15 minute massage or take a dance class at a local studio during my lunch breaks. I’m a bit of a workaholic. I had to force myself to get up and get out instead of eating lunch working through my break.
In terms of diet, I learned a couple tricks about incorporating pre- and probiotics into meals to balance out the gut’s microbiome (AKA the microbe population in the gut. Yeah. I know. Sexy.)
Prebiotic foods don’t contain living organisms. They are fibrous and ferment in the GI tract, where they are consumed by probiotic bacteria and converted into other healthful substances. Prebiotic foods include artichokes, leeks, onions, garlic, chicory, cabbage, asparagus, legumes, and oats. Tomatoes, apples, berries and mangoes are also good prebiotic choices.
Probiotic foods (and supplements) contain live, healthy bacteria that help promote better gut health. Probiotic foods and beverages include plain yogurt, kefir, cottage cheese, fresh sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, apple cider vinegar, and miso. If you go see a doctor, they’d likely tell you to take probiotic supplements; Phillips tends to be the popular brand, but I personally like Ultimate Flora because its made for women.
I would still encourage anyone with persistent tummy issues to see a medical professional! However, you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t also evaluate your mental and emotional health as part of the treatment plan.
Wellness is dope,
P.S. I’m not affiliated with any of the brands I’ve linked, those are just my go-to products!
About the Author
Shannon is the Founder and CEO of Welstand Boutique, a website dedicated to promoting proactive wellness through blogs and free resources. She also creates natural products for the mind, body, and spirit for Welstand’s online shop. When she isn’t working, she enjoys spending time with her husband and toddler, traveling, trying new foods, and watching way too much TV. Her guilty pleasures are ice cream and all things Beyonce. You can follow her on instagram @welstandboutique or shoot her an email to say “hey!” or ask questions at: firstname.lastname@example.org