Don’t let stress mess with your gut

gut brain connection

We used to think that stress was a ‘brain-state’… but we now know that stress messes with the state of our ‘gut’ too.

What is stress?

STRESS is our body’s physiological response to a perceived threat. Any physical, emotional or environmental stressor can provoke our sympathetic nervous system’s ‘fight and flight’ response.

A STRESSOR is the physical, emotional or environmental agent that provokes the stress response in our body.

What’s our gut got to do with it?

We might think stress starts in the brain – but it’s a complex TWO-WAY relationship between our brain and our gut.


That ‘gut feeling’? It’s a thing: our GUT impacts our brain and our BRAIN impacts our GUT impacts our brain

The ‘gut-brain’ axis

The vagus (‘wandering’) nerve is the key bi-directional (two-way) communication pathway between the brain and gut.  It carries information about the state of our inner organs to the brain and carries messages back from the brain to body organs.

Via complex interconnections with other body systems, the vagus nerve is intimately involved in influencing our gut microbes to help regulate gastrointestinal homeostasis (balance), connecting emotional and cognitive areas of the brain with our gut functions.

gut health


Microbes are everywhere! These microscopic, single-cell micro-organisms (bacteria, fungi and archaea) are the oldest form of life on Earth, dating back over 3.5 billion years. At its most fundamental level, life on our planet is deeply co-operative – a symbiosis of beneficial relationships between different life forms.

Microbes play a starring role in mediating those relationships and in the development and maintenance of life on this planet, including our own.

Our human microbes

Our human microbiome (think of it as a hidden, dispersed organ) is the sum and total of micro-organisms that live on and inside of our body.

Different colonies of this microflora have co-evolved with our human cells and reside on the surface of and in deep layers of our skin and mammary glands, saliva and oral mucosa, the conjunctiva in our eyes and crucially, in our gastrointestinal tract and large intestine… where the majority of them live.

Don’t mess with your microbes!

On every level, our gut bacteria play a fundamental role in keeping us healthy; messing with those critters messes with our physical and emotional health. And stress messes with them big time.

A family of peptides called corticotrophin releasing factors (CRF) are responsible for coordinating our body’s response to stress, and CRFs have a potent effect on our gut.

In a nutshell, chronic stress knocks our out beneficial gut microbes (the good guys) and lets the pathogenic and opportunistic gut microbes (the bad boys) run riot. An unbalanced or dysbiotic gut openis the door to inflammation, leaky gut, gastro-intestinal disorders, compromised immunity and ultimately – to chronic, autoimmune and degenerative disease.

Although science has only very recently recognised the existence of our microbiome, it’s already crystal clear that we simply cannot survive, let alone maintain our health, without our microbes. They help us to:

  • digest our food
  • train and regulate our immune system
  • crowd out and protect us against pathogenic bacteria
  • produce a range of important essential nutrients like vitamin B12 & vitamin K
  • and they even determine our appetite and shape our behaviour!

Research is showing that all autoimmune diseases and many chronic disorders, including mental illnesses, are rooted in dysfunction of the gut microbiome:


“The catastrophic failure of human metabolism observed in autoimmune disease results from a common underlying pathogenesis – the successive accumulation of pathogens into the microbiome over time, and the ability of such pathogens to dysregulate gene transcription, translation, and human metabolic processes. Autoimmune diseases are more likely passed in families because of the inheritance of a familial microbiome….” 

Proal AD et al: The human microbiome and autoimmunity 

probiotics word cloudWhat can we do?

We can let our food be our medicine and feed our gut microbes with:

  • PRE-BIOTICS – fibre rich foods that feed the good guys: apples, onions, leeks, bananas, ground flax seeds;
  • PRO-BIOTICS – that powerfully support the gut: cultured foods like unpasteurised milk and cheeses, live yoghurt, kefir and fermented foods like sauerkrauts, kimchi, fermented veggies, kombucha.

It’s a fact that our modern lifestyles heap stress upon our struggling bodies. When it comes to food, pre and pro-biotics are our powerful allies in protecting our gut microbiome, but we can do more.

We can support our body by prioritising a well-sourced, nutrient-dense diet of whole, organic, traditional foods cooked at home – from scratch.

And you can read more about the traditional foods that kept our ancestors healthy, why they need to be back on your table and how to do it, in my book:

The Real Food Solution front cover

Health is Wealth. Invest in Yours!

Izabella Natrins

I'm here to inspire and support women at midlife and beyond to re-ignite purpose and meaning to take back control of their health and create the radical, resilient heath they want and deserve. As a whole-health expert with over 30 years experience in the field, a qualified Health and Wellness Coach and Ballymaloe-trained nutritional chef, my real food nutrition and lifestyle medicine programmes support women fighting fatigue, struggling with overwhelm, weight gain, sleep, energy and niggling or multiple diagnosed health issues. As an advocate for real food nutrition, regenerative agriculture and whole-health, my book 'The Real Food Solution' is an evidence-based treasury wisdom for energy, vitality and better health for people and planet and a call to action to change the way we grown, source and cook our food. As the CEO at The UK Health Coaches Association, I'm proud to continue the task of leading the first professional association for Health and Wellness Coaches in the world and the gold standard for the UK and Ireland.

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1 Response

  1. March 18, 2020

    […] – I can’t over-emphasise how our gut health impacts every aspect of our health and how much stress knocks out our gut function. […]

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