Struggling With Gut Health? Combating Stress Might Be The Remedy

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Dec. 11 2023, Published 8:10 a.m. ET

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As the oldest of six children, a straight-A student, and competitive dancer growing up, stress started to physically present itself to me at 10 years old. I struggled with inconsistent periods, nausea, and a lack of appetite, which carried on as I grew older.

At 18, my gynecologist diagnosed me with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). I learned then how stress and hormonal imbalances trigger the symptoms, but still didn’t fully understand the link between issues with my gut and stress.

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I visited my old gastroenterologist at 22 because my gut issues had gotten worse. After my first visit, I was tested to find out if the challenges could be attributed to irritable bowel syndrome, gastritis, or celiac disease. Fortunately, my results from the blood and stool tests came back negative.

As I waited to take my final tests to confirm the issue is not related to a physical disorder or ailment, I began to seek more knowledge about how the gut connects to the mind.

According to a recent study, “younger Americans experience more digestive woes, with 73% of adults ages 18-44 having symptoms at least a few times a month (vs. 44% of adults 65+).” This study also found that gut issues are more common among women than men.

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Defining Gut Health

Doctors and gastrointestinal system articles define gut health as the full function of one’s digestive system. It consists of how we digest foods we eat, absorb these foods, and dispose of waste.

“We’re really looking to make sure that everything is functioning well in terms of how you’re treating digestive enzymes and the level of your stomach acid from when you first ingest food, all the way down to what’s going on in your small intestines as food is moving through and nutrients are being absorbed,” said Dr. Paria Vaziri, a trained physician who holds a doctoral degree in naturapathic medicine, told Her Agenda. “And then on to your large intestines, where most of your bacteria is.”

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How Stress Negatively Impacts Digestion

Stress triggers our body’s sympathetic nervous system, the body’s fight or flight response. In this mode, our body stops prioritizing body functions that can’t fight against imminent danger, such as digestion. According to the National Library of Medicine, “Stress can affect the gastrointestinal tract by affecting how quickly food moves through the bowels. It can also affect nutrients and what nutrients the intestines absorb.”

Managing Stress And Hormones

I began seeing my therapist, Damaris Colon MA, LMHC, to unpack my stress triggers. My early experiences of going from one activity to another and playing a crucial role in my household left my body in constant fight-or-flight mode. Nausea made it hard to digest meals, and once I sat down after a long day I wouldn’t have a desire to eat. Understanding how stress affected my quality of life encouraged me to seek mental health help.

Working with my therapist helped me face mental blocks and the childhood experiences that triggered them. We talked about strategies that could help me gain control of my anxiety in situations, such as conducting a body scan on myself.

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In a year, I’ve seen a decrease in my anxiety and depression levels and had an easier time managing my digestive issues. I went from barely finishing a meal in a day to a healthy craving of three to four meals in one day. I also take birth control and hormone supplements, incorporate cardio into my workouts, and increase by fiber intake. These recommendations from my doctor help regulate my body’s hormonal imbalances and decrease my gut health symptoms.

Improving Our Overall Health

Dr. Paria also sees hormonal issues, such as acne and reproductive cycle issues, among her patients with gut health concerns. “A lot of people that I work with—[who] struggle with painful periods or really [have] bad PMS, or even really irregular cycles, in some cases PCOS—some of it can be tied down to gut health,” she said.

She suggests that women ask their doctors about bowel movement regularities, issues with heartburn and indigestion, and bloating. All of these could be indications of deeper gut health issues. She also recommends that we decrease our intake of processed foods, manage stress levels, and incorporate body movement into our day. “I think the more that you can optimize your health and focus on the foundations of health and be in a good place in your 20s and 30s and 40s, the more you’re going to set yourself up for a more enjoyable second half of your life with less health complications.”

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By: Chinenye Onyeike

Chinenye Onyeike is an NAACP and Webby Award winning producer. She currently works as an associate producer for The Daily Show podcasts and a Her Agenda contributor.

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