Stress on the Gut
Stress is a buzz word in wellness. This is for a few good reasons:
- Everyone experiences it.
- It affects everything: your brain, body, emotions, self-care, productivity, and even relationship interactions.
Many people have experienced a “nervous stomach” because of emotional upheaval. The reason for this is that your gut is one area that is particularly vulnerable stress.
This relationship between stress and the digestive tract is bidirectional. This means emotional and physical stressors can alter our gastrointestinal (GI) function and an imbalance in our gut physiology can trigger or perpetuate stressors.
If you’re having intestinal issues and are stressed out, it’s important to understand this connection and have information on how to correct this.
In my previous article and video, I explored how stress can impact the gut. I discussed:
- The enteric nervous system: how our nervous system connects to this “second brain” located in our intestines
- The gut-brain connection: how our gut communicates with our brain via metabolites produced from its microbiota and through the vagal nerve
- The gut-stress axis: how stress influences GI motility, digestive and hormonal secretions, pain sensation, microbe population, and the intestinal mucosa and lining
- Stressed-out guts and disease: how long-term stress can lead to diseases by negatively altering gut and systemic immunity, the microbiome, and intestinal permeability (“leaky gut”)
- Two tips to support a stressed-out gut: probiotics and lifestyle factors
Now, in this post and video, I will describe more on how to use naturopathic and functional medicine modalities to soothe a stressed-out belly and support optimal gut-brain health. Topics include:
- Basic lab work to assess a stressed-out gut
- Functional labs to determine overall digestive health and function
- Naturopathic and functional medicine approaches to support healthy guts and soothe the mind-body. These include digestive enzymes, nourishing foods and lifestyle habits, herbs and supplements, essential oils, and mind-body interventions.
Let’s get started.
Naturopathic and Functional Medicine Labs to Evaluate Stressed-Out Guts
The following lab tests are often run by primary care providers when someone has digestive disorders. They can help to assess what may be contributing to gut problems and malabsorption.
- A complete blood chemistry – this test can help to determine overall metabolism, kidney and liver health, electrolytes, and blood glucose. All these factors can contribute to an unhealthy gut and can be altered due to GI dysfunction.
- A white blood cell differential – to evaluate immune deregulation and activation.
- HbA1c (hemoglobin A1c) – to assess blood sugar imbalances. Gut health, the microbiome, and intestinal permeability can alter glucose metabolism and vice versa.
Other tests that may be deemed necessary to run with GI distress include:
- A comprehensive thyroid panel (to rule out hypothyroidism as a secondary cause of constipation or slow digestion)
- An iron panel to assess for bleeding problems (ulcers)
- Other immune and inflammatory markers
Imaging and Testing
Proper imaging and testing for lower colon abnormalities, ulcers, and GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) should be performed as needed. You can access a full list here.
The following markers can help to assess digestive health and microbiome imbalances (dysbiosis):
- Comprehensive stool tests – These offer a complete look at gut health by measuring pathogens and analyzing digestion, nutrient absorption, inflammation, and immune function (including celiac markers).
- Testing for SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), H. Pylori, and other pathogens– These results may help to diagnose infectious causes of GERD, ulcers, and other digestive disorders.
Naturopathic and Functional Medicine Modalities to Revive the Gut-Brain and Cool Stress
Addressing the cause of digestive dysfunction is paramount. Below are some natural interventions that naturopathic and functional medicine practitioners may use when indicated.
Digestive Enzyme Support
Digestive enzymes can decrease with chronic nutrient depletion and digestive disorders. Furthermore, stress influences GI secretions.
Supplementing with digestive enzymes and HCL (hydrochloric acid) can help assist with gut and belly function. Nutrients such as iron, zinc, and B vitamins are precursors in the production of stomach acid (HCL).
If depleted, these can be added to a wellness regime to assist with alleviating various digestive complaints including heartburn, constipation, and slow bowel transit.
Nourishing Foods and Lifestyle Support for the Microbiome
Supporting a healthy microbiome is important for a robust digestive system. Incorporating specific foods that you enjoy into your diet can help to feed healthy microbiota in the GI tract. This can improve digestive health and gut-brain communication.
- fermented foods (such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, etc.)
- polyphenol-rich foods from plants and beverages (e.g., cocoa, green tea, and coffee)
- lifestyle changes (e.g., more sleep, and stress reduction)
- movement – this can help to support bowel health and positively shift the microbiome.
It’s important to be aware that everyone has different needs, and some “healthy” foods can be suboptimal if one’s gut doesn’t have the prowess to effectively digest and absorb them, so personalization is best.
Herbs and Supplements
The gut microbiota and herbs interact through two pathways. First, the gut microbiota “digests” the plant material into metabolites which produce biological changes. Secondly, these compounds alter the composition of the GI microbiota and its secretions, producing physiological changes.
Herbs and plant compounds can produce a variety of effects as a result. Regarding the gut, many can act as antimicrobials to help to ward off infections in the intestines.
Demulcent herbs, such as licorice and slippery elm, can also soothe irritated tissue of the stomach and GI tract in those with GERD and ulcers.
Nutrients and supplements can additionally be helpful to replenish deficiencies from malabsorption and modulate gut health. For example, melatonin has evidence in human trials to support a healthy stomach and digestive tract lining.
Probiotics in the genus lactobacillus and bifidobacterium have evidence for alleviating gastrointestinal conditions. They also have been found to favorably alter the gut and brain in relation to stress and anxiety.
Essential Oils have many properties that support digestion. They are antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidants (alleviating cellular stress), soothing to the mucosa, and benefit the mind-body connection.
Essential oils have also been shown to be beneficial to the microbiome. Evidence is pointing to the fact that they tend to decrease pathogens and detrimental microbiota overgrowths while sparing, or enhancing, beneficial microbes.
Some of my favorite essential oils for overall gut health include:
- frankincense and myrrh
- oregano and thyme
Essential Oils for the Mind-Body Connection
Essential oils are known to calm the brain, which is another way they can soothe gut irritation. Previously, I discussed nine ways that certain essential oils have been found to support our bodies during stress. These include:
- reducing cortisol, the stress hormone
- modulating brain signals (neurotransmitters)
- shifting our brainwaves
- calming our emotions
- enhancing cognition
- supporting cellular physiology
- working directly on our emotional brain, causing an immediate shift in our perception (imperative for modulating stress)
- evoking memories and transforming our mood through their aroma
- interacting with odor receptors throughout our whole body, influencing our biochemical pathways and physical state
Three essential oils that have small, yet impressive human clinical data on lowering cortisol include lavender, clary sage, and bergamot. Several essential oil blends can also be used to cool down cortisol, the Stress Relief Blend and the Joyful Blend.
Starting at the level of the mind, and balancing the physiological effects of stress, essential oils can be a powerful way to keep calm, refresh the mind-body, and to achieve better overall wellness.
Holistic Stress Relief
Along with supporting gut health and using essential oils to calm overwhelm, several holistic modalities can also favorably rescue the cellular (epigenetic) pathways that can get hijacked by stress. Adding them to any health protocol can be beneficial. They include:
- mind-body techniques
- lifestyle practices (sleep, habits, etc.)
- self-care techniques
Summary: Using Naturopathic and Functional Medicine to Support Digestive Health
Stress can alter gut function and impact our digestive health and overall wellness. Furthermore, digestive distress perpetuates stress symptoms.
There are various naturopathic and functional medicine interventions to support a stressed-out gut. Once the causative factor is found, natural modalities can be used to help alleviate digestive woes. These include digestive enzymes, nutrients, foods that support microbiome health, herbs, supplements, and techniques to balance the mind-body, such as essential oils.
If you can’t get to the bottom of your chronic digestive issues, a naturopathic and/or functional medicine doctor can provide support. They will assist you in finding and remediating the contributors to a stressed-out gut while offering personalized support for your mind-body health.
Naturopathic Medicine and Holistic Resources for Hormonal, Mood, and Digestive Support
- Free resources and more education on essential oils and mind-body wellness are available to you here.
- An Integrative Mental Health and Stress Resource Guide.
- Tools for coping with isolation and separation.
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Disclaimer: This material is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prescribe for any illness. You should check with your doctor regarding implementing any new strategies into your wellness regime. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. (Affiliation link.)
This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic quality essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been tested for purity and standardized constituents. There is no quality control in the United States, and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only to contain 5% of the actual oil. The rest of the bottle can be filled with fillers and sometimes toxic ingredients that can irritate the skin. The studies are not based solely on a specific brand of an essential oil, unless stated. Please read the full study for more information.
Thanks Pixabay and Canva.