Stress can impact your digestive health in a number of ways.
Cortisol ‘the stress hormone’ should follow a daily rhythm where it builds overnight and peaks as we wake in the morning. It should then gradually reduce throughout the day. It’s what gives us our get up and go in the morning and enables us to go to sleep at night. Cortisol is also involved in the management of other hormones and blood sugar regulation.
Additionally, when we perceive a threat, cortisol is released and initiates a number of processes that are designed to protect us. It prepares us to stand and fight, or run away in what’s referred to the ‘fight or flight’ response. It raises blood sugar levels so that we have energy to fight, or run away and shuts down non-essential functions like digestion. These responses can be life saving in the case of acute stress, but if stress is prolonged to the point it becomes chronic raised cortisol levels can become problematic.
When stress becomes chronic
When the body is exposed to constant low-level stressors (both physical and psychological) and doesn’t have time to recover, we can end up with elevated levels of cortisol over long periods of time. This can negatively impact blood sugar management and digestion. Chronic stress can be the result of all sorts of things. For instance, a high-pressure job, busy family life or a naturally competitive nature.
In addition to ‘switching off’ digestion, stress has been shown to increase the permeability of the gut, making it more leaky. It has also been linked to poor digestive health and symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome such as constipation, diarrhoea and bloating.
I find stress has a role to play in the majority of clients I work with. Helping clients to understand how stress may be impacting their health and suggesting ways to address it is an important part of the work I do.
Signs you may have a cortisol imbalance
- Struggling to wake up in the morning
- Mid afternoon energy slumps
- You get a ‘second wind’ in the evening
- Craving salty foods
- You find it difficult to lose weight
- Bloating and flatulence after eating
What can you do about it?
It’s important to allow the body time to recover from stress and get out of ‘fight or flight’ mode. We do this by making time for relaxation and things we enjoy. It’s also important to reduce physical stressors such as poor diet and low quality sleep as much as we can. Dr Chatterjee’s book ‘The Stress Solution’ is a great read for anyone interested in exploring this topic further.
Hawrelak, J.A. and Myers, S.P., 2004. The causes of intestinal dysbiosis: a review. Alternative medicine review: a journal of clinical therapeutic, 9(2), pp.180–97.
Konturek, P.C., Brzozowski, T. and Konturek, S.J., 2011. Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options. Journal of physiology and pharmacology: an official journal of the Polish Physiological Society, 62(6), pp.591–9.
Nodder, J., 2010. ‘Compromised Thyroid and Adrenal Function’ Biochemical Imbalances in Disease: A practitioner’s handbook. London: Singing Dragon.