Modern life is full of chronic stressors. These are often subtly present in your life, from smart devices and increasingly long working hours, to a steadily growing to-do list and a range of commitments that bombard you from all angles.
These increased stress levels affect your mind and your body more than you may even realize. Emotional stress is a major contributing factor to the six main causes of death in the US: cancer, coronary heart disease, accidental injuries, respiratory conditions, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention of the United States estimates that stress accounts for around 75% of all doctor visits. These patients report having heart problems, an upset stomach, ulcers, insomnia, fatigue, back pain, and headaches, among other complaints.1 Stress also increases your risk of diabetes, especially in overweight individuals.
Stress can even lead to Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO), as it directly affects your digestive system. SIBO is a gut infection that occurs when bacteria begin to colonize your small intestine and multiply. Normally, the majority of your gut bacteria reside in your large intestine and colon, whereas your small intestine is typically quite sterile. However, certain factors such as a high-carb diet, nerve or muscle damage in the stomach, dysmotility, and some medications can cause an abnormal backup of bacteria in the small intestine. SIBO can lead to a number of uncomfortable symptoms including gas and bloating, diarrhoea, fatigue, and rosacea or other skin rashes.
Think you might be dealing with SIBO? Take this quiz to find out!
Now let’s take a deeper look into how exactly stress causes SIBO, and then I’ll share some simple strategies you can use to protect your body from stress and prevent (or overcome) SIBO.
Stress Stops Your Body From Producing Gastric Acid
When your body is healthy, gastric acid is secreted by your stomach in order to kill ingested bacteria before it enters your small intestine. However, if your HPA axis—the hormonal subsystem in your body that controls stress hormones—is out of balance due to increased stress, your body doesn’t produce enough stomach acid to kill the necessary bacteria. This is a protective mechanism your body has in place to guarantee sufficient energy reserves for a fight or flight situation. However, in our modern-day world, the constant stress we endure can transform this protective mechanism into chronic, ongoing low gastric acid production, allowing bacteria to enter your small intestine, proliferate and promote the development of SIBO.
Stress Causes Dysmotility
The muscles in your digestive tract have a way of sweeping residual undigested food and other matter through your GI tract between meals, a type of peristalsis known as the migrating motor complex. However, when stress hormones are released into your bloodstream, these muscles simply stop doing their work, or do that work less efficiently, allowing bacteria to build up and causing food to stagnate, which ferments and further feeds the bacteria in your gut.
On top of that, when you are stressed out, you’ve probably noticed yourself reaching for unhealthy snacks or “stress-eating”. That’s because stress drives your body to produce more cortisol, which causes your blood sugar levels to fluctuate and leads to frequent snacking and overeating. This constant influx of food prevents your digestive tract from ever fully completing its “housekeeping”, which adds to the problem by creating a breeding ground for bacteria.
Stress Affects Your Mucosal Immunity
I often talk about the relationship between your gut and the autoimmune spectrum. However, you may not have heard me discuss secretory Immunoglobulin A (IgA) before. This antibody serves as the first line of defense in protecting your intestinal wall from toxins and pathogenic microorganisms. It blocks their access to receptors in your gut lining, traps them in mucus and aids their physical removal from your gut.
However, can you imagine what happens when you’re stressed? Yes, your body produces less of this antibody to save energy, which may increase your risk of bacterial overgrowth within your intestines.
Stress Increases Your Risk of Infection
Did you know that stress hormones actually make life very easy for bacteria? Stress promotes bacterial attachment to your tissues and increases your risk of infection.
Stress Promotes The Development of Biofilms
Biofilms are a community of microorganisms that share nutrients and DNA. Unfortunately, biofilms also protect bacteria from the herbs and antimicrobial supplements used to help repair your gut and keep conditions like SIBO at bay, so preventing their build-up is essential for optimal health.
This is yet another reason why you need to keep your stress levels in check. Stress hormones and other substances involved in the stress response, including cortisol and catecholamines, promote the formation of biofilms by helping pathogenic bacteria access the nutrients they need to stay in your body.
Fortunately, there are lots of ways to prevent these biofilms from forming, as well as help your body to combat SIBO and keep you healthy long-term, and I am going to guide you through several solutions that you can start implementing immediately.
Beating SIBO Through Stress Management
There is no one best way to manage and relieve stress. You will quickly find out what works well for you personally, so you can design the perfect de-stressing routine for you.