Stressed? Is your busy lifestyle harming your gut?

Woman walking in busy street

In 2016, Nutritionist Resource saw a 180% increase in IBS-related member enquiries compared to the previous year. Are more people suffering, or is it simply that we are more aware of symptoms, and want to make a change?

It is estimated that as many as 50% of the UK population will experience symptoms of a digestive problem at any one time. Whether it be indigestion or diarrhoea, or something more serious, like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common condition, with 10 to 20% of people in the UK thought to be affected. This condition is long-term, and affects the functioning of the digestive system. It can cause bloating, abdominal discomfort, constipation and/or diarrhoea.

The thing is, IBS has no specific cause. There are risk factors and triggers, but a direct cause is yet to be discovered.

Experts believe IBS could be related to digestive problems and increased gut sensitivity. For example, gastroenteritis (the vomiting bug) is considered a risk factor, as it can affect the normal functioning of the gut. Similarly, certain courses of antibiotics are also considered a risk factor.

But, interestingly, it’s also thought that a person who has experienced a traumatic or upsetting event is at risk of developing symptoms of IBS.

How does stress and trauma affect our digestive system?

Evidence suggests that psychological factors, such as experiencing trauma as a child (for example, abuse or illness) or certain lifestyle habits can affect the functioning of the gut.

This doesn’t mean IBS is a condition of the mind, not at all, and the symptoms are very real.

But, when emotions are heightened, or you are experiencing stress or anxiety, a chemical change can be sparked in your body. It’s this change that’s thought to interfere with your gut, sending your bowels haywire.

But how does stress affect our gut?

It’s possible that these difficult experiences have made your body more sensitive to stress.

If you’ve experienced something terrible in your life, your body will have made the necessary adjustments in order to help you cope – mentally and physically. But, often underlying issues can develop, as a result of the trauma, PTSD for example.

In 2016, our fact-sheet on IBS had over 25,000 visits, while ‘stress’ received just over 1,000. Do people know the two are linked? Are we taking stress seriously as a cause of physical problems?

If you’re stressed or under pressure, your body feels (and shows) the effects. It’s believed that emotional tension can trigger IBS or make symptoms worse, and many people with IBS discover that their gut acts as a type of ‘emotional barometer’. It reacts accordingly, whether you are coping well with what’s happening in your life, or if you’re struggling.

Of course, if you’re finding it difficult to cope and your health is at risk, it needs to be addressed.

Stress and our health, does it impact more than we think?

We spoke to nutritional therapist, Ruth Tansey, who explains more about the link between stress and gut health, and what to expect from nutritional support.

How much do you believe stress affects gut health? IBS in particular.

I work with many clients who suffer like I once did, with chronic IBS. With the most common symptoms being intermittent constipation and diarrhoea, pain and bloating. The majority report high levels of stress in their lives, either from work, home or a combination of both.

When we’re in our sympathetic nervous system or ‘fight or flight’ mode, we struggle to digest food. To digest food, we need to be in our parasympathetic nervous system or ‘rest and digest’ mode.

When food isn’t digested properly (for example, when we aren’t sitting in a calm, relaxed manner, and don’t chew each mouthful 20 to 30 times) the undigested food can cause a whole host of problems, many of which are associated with IBS.

Do you think people realise their symptoms may be a result of their stressful lifestyle?

Most people who come into my clinic are truly surprised that a busy lifestyle, where they are rushing around and not really paying attention to their bowel, could be causing them to experience symptoms of IBS.

We’ve become conditioned to do anything and everything in such a short space of time. We’re always focused on the next task at hand, and so don’t stop to take a breath. We don’t stop to be present or ‘in the now’ so to speak. This is where practices such as mindfulness can be beneficial.

What can people expect from visiting a nutrition professional? How can you help?

As a nutritional therapist, I take clients displaying symptoms of IBS through a thorough consultation after they have completed a 7-day food diary and health questionnaire.

I typically spend an hour and a half with them to systematically go through each body system, to see where the imbalances are appearing.

Together we discuss their symptoms in detail. At the end of the consultation, I make a dietary recommendation, perhaps discussing specific tailored supplements. I may also recommend some diagnostic testing to rule out any inflammatory problems, food intolerances, parasitic or yeast infections, and to ascertain if any digestive enzymes or probiotics are required. I then set my clients off on a full gut-restoration programme, to see if their symptoms reduce.

What can people to do manage stress and symptoms of IBS (e.g. FODMAPS)?

The first thing is to identify the root cause of IBS. If stress is a factor, I work alongside a team of holistic practitioners and can refer for further support to address anxiety and stress-related issues. However, I will generally begin with giving my clients some simple breathing exercises to practice, especially before they eat, as this really helps to ‘switch on’ the digestive system.

It’s one of the things that really helped me overcome my own symptoms. If a client looks like they may have issues digesting certain types of food, we would work together to devise an elimination diet. Sometimes this may not be a complete low FODMAP diet, as these can be very troublesome for some clients.

I generally find that not all FODMAPs bother everyone, so it’s a matter of identifying which ones do. Ultimately, I never want a client to be on a low FODMAP diet for long. Usually it’s six weeks, then we begin to reintroduce foods one at a time, and note any symptoms or changes.

Stress and nutrition

When overwhelmed or worried, we can fall into bad habits. While in the moment, it can seem to help ease the worry, in the long run, these bad habits can actually create more stress.

Common habits we develop when stressed include:

Turning to coffee – If you’re burning the candle at both ends, without a break, you’ll likely begin to feel tired, emotionally and physically. You may find yourself drinking more coffee than usual to give yourself a much-needed energy boost.

What can you do instead? We know it’s not always as simple as getting more sleep, but if you’re having a coffee as soon as you wake up and another when you feel sluggish, consider switching it for another warming drink. Creep out of the habit with hot lemon water in the morning, and green tea in the afternoon.

Eating the wrong foods – When under pressure, the levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) rise in the body. Increased stress seems to make people crave foods high in fat, sugar and salt – like all the crisps, ice cream and pizza you lust for after a hard day at work.

What can you do instead? Firstly, don’t be too hard on yourself. You’re allowed to find comfort in your favourite foods. If you’ve had a bad day and want some biscuits with your evening cuppa, that’s OK, just ensure you’re eating a proper meal as well. After all, crisps and ice cream isn’t a nutritious dinner!

Skipping meals – If you’ve got a lot on your plate, it’s likely that eating a healthy meal has fallen low on the priority list. You may want something quick, so find yourself eating little portions or opting for fast food, or you may be skipping meals altogether as you simply ‘don’t have time’.

Mindless eating – On the other hand, stress can also drive many of us to eating more. You might be an emotional eater, eating foods for comfort, or mindlessly munching as you think of other things.

What can you do instead? Whether you’re eating too little, or eating too much, planning can go a long way. Set aside some time where you can do a food shop and prepare some meals in advance. It might take a few hours, but it’ll mean you have your meals prepped for the week.

Dehydration – When busy, many of us forget to drink water – only getting it from our tea or coffee. Dehydration can leave you low in energy, which can in turn restart the caffeine cycle.

What can you do instead? ‘Drinking plenty of water’ may be something you hear all the time, but for good reason. Staying hydrated keeps you feeling energised and productive throughout the day, not to mention it’s vital for life! If you tend to forget to drink water, set a reminder on your phone, or bring a large water bottle to work. If it’s there, you’re more likely to drink it.

Fad diets as a result of weight gain – Stress can lead to weight gain, often as a result of the above habits. This may add to the stress, and you may put pressure on yourself to lose the weight quickly, through fad diets or skipping meals.

What can you do instead? Focus on getting back to a healthy, happy routine. If you’re going through a stressful time, embarking on a fad diet won’t make you feel any better. Turn your focus to coping with the stress; getting plenty of sleep, eating well and taking a break, and everything will fall into place.

Dealing with stress isn’t easy, and sometimes you need a helping hand. Asking for help is nothing to be ashamed of, and if you’re unable to cope and it’s negatively affecting your well-being, it’s important you speak up. If there are underlying causes to your stress, it may be worth talking to a professional, like a counsellor. They can work with you to understand what may be causing your stress, and help you manage it.

If you suspect your lifestyle and/or dietary habits are affecting your gut health, consider seeking professional support. A nutrition professional can help you understand what may be triggering your symptoms, and how to manage them.

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Ellen Hoggard

Written by Ellen Hoggard

Ellen is the Content Manager for Memiah and writer for Nutritionist Resource and Happiful magazine.
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