When chronic stress is left unchecked, it chips away at our physical and mental health in ways that may start out invisible, but becomes more and more apparent with time.
Our bodies, specifically our gut microbiome, is a reflection of our environment, and vice versa. To put it more bluntly, when we’re stuck in a toxic external environment, it can trigger a toxic internal environment in our gut.
We’re only just beginning to understand how interconnected the brain and gut really are, but a plethora of research shows that our state of mental health impacts everything from skin to sleep to digestion and immune response—and it all starts with the bacteria in our gut microbiome.
The Mind-Body Connection AKA the Gut-Brain Axis
A healthy gut contains about 100 trillion mostly benign bacteria that make up a diverse, yet delicate ecosystem called the gut microbiome. Often referred to as the “second brain,” the gut, or gastrointestinal tract, is the center of critical functions like digestion, metabolizing vitamins and nutrients, and syphoning off waste, but its scope and impact affects far more than its home in the colon. These bacterial benefactors communicate with the brain on many levels and influence everything from our metabolism, to memory, to our moods. The neurotransmitter serotonin — which helps regulate mood, appetite and digestion, sleep, memory, and sexual desire — is directly linked to your microbiome.
When we’re stuck in a toxic external environment, it can trigger a toxic internal environment in our gut.
All of our bodily processes are listening and communicating through the gut, so it’s important to maintain a balanced microbiome for a balanced body. Unfortunately, this delicate balance can be thrown out of balance extremely easily, and for any number of reasons like eating gluten, allergies, antibiotics, exposure to pesticides, and, yes even stress.
Pre-2020, your gut flora was likely flourishing, a diverse, hard working system feeding on good bacteria from a balanced diet, routine, and hope for the future. The healthier and more varied your bacterial benefactors, the stronger your resistance to common ailments, infection, and dealing with stressful situations. Now, it’s likely living off snack foods and a steady stream of stress. To understand how chronic stress affects our gut bacteria, let’s review a few basic bodily systems.
The autonomic nervous system regulates automatic body processes. It’s your body auto-piloting things like blood pressure, breathing, blinking and digestion. It’s comprised of two branches:
- The sympathetic nervous system controls our stress response. This activates our fight or flight mode when we are under stress
The parasympathetic nervous system controls our necessary vital biological processes like sleep, cell repair, and digestion.
When your body is stressed enough to enter “fight or flight” mode (which, let’s face it, is kind of an everyday occurrence), it activates the sympathetic nervous system to deal with the immediate perceived threat. But doing so means there’s not enough internal energy left for non-essential activities your parasympathetic nervous system is running, like sexual desire and digestion.
How does stress affect the digestive system?
When your body slows down digestion to conserve energy, your body may not produce enough bile or enzymes to properly digest food to absorb enough nutrients, making things go faster or slower, or with more contractions. You may experience cramping or boating, heartburn, nausea, diarrhea or constipation.
If your digestion is inefficient, food particles can get physically stuck in the intestines, which can lead to bacterial overgrowth. In an ironic twist, we are “overfeeding” our gut bacteria, while not getting enough nutrients ourselves—no matter how heathy we're eating.
How does stress affect my immune system?
Seventy to eighty percent of our immune system exists in our gut—and for good reason. Just think of all the things our gut is exposed to: viruses, yeast, microbes, fungi, other bacteria, last week’s leftovers you promised yourself wouldn’t go to waste….
Well, when undigested food particles are left hanging out in your intestines due to a slowed down digestion, your gut lining can become sensitive. Cell regeneration also slows while in fight or flight, and the acid sitting in our stomach can cause microscopic permeability, or leakiness in the gut, where those dang food particles get stuck between the new cells.
The bacteria in your gut sense that there is something there that shouldn't be, which activates the immune system to “protect” you from the invaders. When your immune system is putting all of its attention on the gut, it lowers your other immune system responses, which can trigger inflammation throughout the body and higher risk for infection.
How does stress affect my sexual health (and vaginal pH?)
A lowered immune system = a higher risk for yeast infection or bacterial vaginosis. Your vaginal microbiome is similar to that of your gut; bacteria are in constant battle for balance, but when your immune system is compromised because you’re stressed, vaginal pH imbalance and infection may follow.
Eating excessive sugar can also increase your chance of yeast infection; when you’ve eaten too much and your body can’t metabolize it fast enough the otherwise healthy yeast in your vagina will feed on the excess from your bloodstream and overgrow.
How can I soothe stress & heal my gut?
In a cruel feedback loop, our stress is the cause of our gut problems, and our gut problems are the cause for stress. Even if you’re not currently experiencing any of these issues, you should always be proactive with your physical and mental health by keeping your gut balance and working hard for you.
Just remember that the goal is not to get rid of the stress—that would be impossible, albeit ideal—but rather to boost our resilience so we can work at fixing the systems that perpetuate stress.
Bottom line: the best thing you can do to support the system is supporting yourself under stress so your gut bacteria will be as resilient as you.
Drink water. Hydration, as you know, is extremely important for literally every bodily function.
Breathe. Try the 4-7-8 method for anxiety or to help you fall asleep. Inhale through your nose for 4 seconds. Hold your breath for 7 seconds. Exhale through your mouth for 8 seconds. Repeat this for a total number of 4 rounds.
Move. Walking is good. Biking and hiking are great. Playing with your dog at the park is *chefs kiss.*
Eat a varied diet with fruits and vegetables, fiber, fats, whole grains, and lean protein.
Take a probiotic if you’re not getting proper amounts through your diet.
Journaling helps your work out your thoughts privately.
Use natural & organic products whenever possible.
Practice gratitude for the little things.
Mealtime is sacred and food is fuel.
Recommended Rituals to Soothe Stress & Improve Digestion.
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How to Cope With Stress & Live in the Moment by Griffin Wynne (they/them)
The Bitter Combo of Sugar & Stress by Maria-Antionette Issa (she/her)
Eating Disorders, Anxiety & Depression by Ro (she/her)
Momotaro Apotheca and its materials are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent any disease. All material on Momotaro Apotheca is provided for educational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider for any questions you have regarding a medical condition.