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Leaky Gut Syndrome Part 2: The Physiology Behind Gut Psychology

Leaky GutIf you read last week’s post (in case you didn’t, catch up here), you’re now savvy about what the heck leaky gut is, its causal factors, who is at greatest risk, and its far-reaching impacts on your health.

This week we’re going to dig a little deeper and zero in on one of the main causes behind this mysterious condition.

It’s not what you may think. We’re not going to focus on diet, chemicals, toxins, medications, or genetics—though all these can contribute to leaky gut.

The main culprit behind our nation’s leaky gut epidemic: an unbalanced stress response, AKA: chronic stress.

How does this work and what can you do about it? Read on to find out how important stress is to your gut health.

The Physiology Behind Gut Psychology—how stress affects your digestive health

The gut is now widely referred to as “the second brain” because the enteric nervous system governs it.  The enteric nervous system is embedded into the lining of your GI tract and consists of more than 500 million neurons.

That’s right. Your gut is chock-full of its own neurons, which explains the mysterious “gut feelings” we all experience.

Your gut is also intimately connected with your body’s other “thinking” and “feeling” systems such as your autonomic nervous system, endocrine (hormonal) system, your brain, and your entire microbial system, known as your microbiome.

Here’s how all this relates to stress.

Your brain and your gut are connected by the gut-brain-axis—picture it like a super-highway of neurons, hormones, and chemical messengers that runs from your esophagus to your anus.

This gut-brain information highway is constantly flowing with information related to feelings such as hunger, mood, and stress.

The minute your brain senses stress or danger, your gut gets the message.

And mental or emotional stress or trauma increases gut permeability causing leaky gut. Let’s look a little deeper…

How Stress Punches Holes in your Gut

A balanced stress response will not hurt your gut. In fact, we all need some stress in our lives to experience excitement, drama, and even the thrill of love.

It’s the chronic stress or trauma that cause a weakening of your intestinal wall.

Let me explain.

When you experience stress your body senses danger and goes into “fight or flight” mode by releasing inflammatory stress hormones and immune system chemicals, such as norepinephrine and cytokines.

These substances are meant to play a protective role by arming your body to either fight or flee from danger…but they also shut down your digestive and immune systems in the process.

This is no big deal if you experience occasional stress, but when you’re under chronic stress this forces your body into an inflammatory and immune-depressed state. This causes your gut to become permeable and thus vulnerable to an overgrowth of unfriendly yeast, bacteria, and pathogens.

An increase in norepinephrine, for example, has been proven to increase the harmful potential of specific pathogenic bacteria.

Unfortunately it is a two-way street. Once you have leaky gut, it will then cause your brain more stress

Again, this has to do with gut-brain connection and the flight-or-flight stress response, which science tells us suppresses our gut’s beneficial bacteria.

Put simply, if your intestinal wall has been breached and is “under attack” by pathogenic bacteria, viruses, etc. it will communicate those stresses back up to your brain.

This may take the form of numerous stress-induced psychological problems including depression, anxiety, mood swings, and panic attacks.

According to this study, even severe psychiatric conditions such as bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia are now being linked to the health of the gut.

As you can see, stress-induced leaky gut is a vicious cycle, and one that can only be completely broken through regulating your stress response.

How to Start Regulating your Stress Response Right Now

Now that you understand how stress causes leaky gut and how leaky gut causes stress, it’s time we get to work regulating your stress response.

After you’ve become conscious of how stress is affecting your gut health, the next step is to take an honest inventory of your mental and emotional stressors.

Treatment of leaky gut through dietary changes, detoxification, and natural supplementation will go a long way, but you will not recover if you won’t work on regulating your stress response.

Grab a pen and paper and let’s brainstorm some areas in your life that may, quite literally, be punching holes in your gut (and happiness).

Write down your honest answers to these questions (no one is looking or judging you):

  • Is my job toxic? If so, how can I fix it?
  • Does my day-to-day schedule bring me ample peace and fulfillment or ample anxiety and stress?
  • Are my relationships, romantic or otherwise, toxic? If so, how can I fix this?
  • Are my beliefs about myself toxic? If so, how can I become more positive?
  • Do my outside influences, such as media, literature and mentors, create joy and contentment or worry and doubt? If worry and doubt, how can I shift to more positive influences?
  • Am I inspired, hopeful, and happy with my life path? If not, whom can I turn to for help to get back on track?

Were you answers revealing? Maybe a little eye-opening and scary?

You’re not alone.

I remember when burnout caught me completely off-guard in my third year of medical school.

Despite the years of over-achieving, burning the midnight oil, and pushing myself to the max, I had been completely unaware of how imbalanced my stress-to-joy ratio had become.

My body finally gave out in the form of debilitating migraines, panic attacks, severe digestive distress, and physical and mental exhaustion.

Be grateful you are not at that point, and do the work now.

If you are are at that place, know that you can and will recover if you’re willing to take stress seriously.

How to Shift Your Leaky-Gut-Mindset

There are countless things you can do, today, to start shifting your mindset, balancing your stressors, and healing your gut:

Some of my favorite ways to keep stress-in-check are:

  • Prepare and set a positive tone for your day—take 5-10 minutes at night or in the morning to write down exactly what you need to accomplish this day, and how you want your day to unfold. Keep it positive, and be specific. Knowing what’s ahead will save you tons of stress.
  • Stay centered in gratitude—you can do this by keeping a gratitude journal, or how I do it, by going around the table at family dinner saying what you’re grateful for.
  • Take small breaks throughout the day—these can be five minute breaks to get up and stretch, make a cup of tea, or read something uplifting.
  • Get outdoors—I could do a whole blog on this, but getting out into nature provides an instant stress-reliever. Try and take your workout outdoors, walk around your lawn barefoot, or enjoy your lunch in the park.
  • Go to bed 1 hour earlier each night—adequate rest will instantly reduce your stress. Aim for 7.5-9 hours of sleep a night, and start by going to bed 1 hour earlier tonight.

I hope I’ve been able to provide some valuable insight into just how crucial your stress response is to your digestive health.

And your digestive health is nearly always at a root of the majority of other type of health concerns you may have.

In next week’s final post in this series, we will be taking a broader look at leaky gut treatment including diet, exercise, supplementation, and more!

In heart-felt-health,

-Dr. Alex