How Stress affects your gut microbiome and tips to help you manage it

Chronic stress is a big contributing factor to chronic disease. It releases epinephrine, which is bad on your lymphocytes (part of your immune system) and cortisol released by your adrenal (your stress hormone gland suppresses your immune system). The gut is especially vulnerable to the presence of chronic (and even acute) stress, demonstrating stress-induced changes in gastric secretion, gut motility, mucosal permeability barrier function, and mucosal blood flow.

There has also been evidence to suggest that gut microbiota may respond directly to stress-related host signals. The intestinal mucosa is infiltrated by the myenteric plexus, which is a network of nerve fibers and neuron cell bodies that are influenced by signaling from the brain. The gut in part of the nervous system so the brain can easily affect gut function. Peptides called corticotrophin releasing factors (CRF) are responsible for coordinating the body’s response to stress, and CRFs have a potent effect on the gut through modulation of inflammation, increase of gut permeability, contribution to visceral hypersensitivity, increased perception to pain, and modulation of the gut motility. This hormone affects the hypothalamic-pituitary axis (HPA) which stimulates the secretion of cortisol from the adrenal glands.

Not only does stress affect the physiological function of the gut, but it has also been shown to actually cause changes in the composition of the microbiota, possibly due to the changes in neurotransmitter and inflammatory cytokine levels. This can increase susceptibility to bad bacteria. Chronic exposure to stress may lead to the development of a variety of gastrointestinal diseases such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), peptic ulcer disease, IBD, IBS, and even food allergies.

Chronic stress can play an important role in the development of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) and leaky gut syndrome.

Reducing stress is a key component of weight loss, longevity, and mental health. Stress may even cause low thyroid symptoms such as weight gain, blood sugar swings, fatigue, decreased immunity, and sleep disturbance.

If you have trouble sleeping, it can very well be related to chronic stress. Some of the tips to help with stress can in turn help with your sleep habits as well.

We need our stress hormones in a fight-or-flight situation, but over the long term, it can be detrimental to our health.


  1. Exercise: spend 30 minutes daily doing something active, exercise class, weight training, high intensity interval training, walking, running, gardening, dancing are good options. Exercise also boosts the immune system, helps manage our weight, builds muscle and helps strengthen our bones and is a great stress reducer.

  2. 3-4-5 breathing exercise: Breathe in 3 counts, hold four counts and exhale five counts.  The longer exhale helps to activate our parasympathetic nervous system which relaxes us. Do this five minutes, three times a day.

  3. Daily affirmations: say something positive about yourself or your life every morning.  Say it out loud, believe it! This is so important to change habits and boost confidence and start to love yourself and your life.

  4. Walk outside near nature as much as possible.

  5. Sit outside with nature as much as possible.

  6. Take social media breaks. If you find you are on your phone looking at Facebook or other social media platforms, set times to take breaks.  Try to get off all electronics an hour or more before bedtime.

  7. Laugh every day. Find something or someone who makes you belly laugh.  There is also laughter therapy, so if you can find something like that where you live give it a go, or just find something funny every day.

  8. Schedule time for yourself every day for 15 minutes. It can be dancing, reading, talking to a good friend, listening to your favorite music, but not social media, TV or electronics.

  9. Start a gratitude journal: At the end of day, write down three things you are grateful for. Be specific, like, “I am grateful for my spouse, who helped me empty the dishwasher,” or, “I am grateful for being able to live in this house,” or, “I am grateful for this gut health group.”

  10. Try meditation: start with five minutes and work your way up to 15 minutes a day.  Be consistent. There is an app called Calm that can help you get started the right way.

Remember, there is no wrong way to relax. Do what helps you. For me, it’s exercise and deep breathing, positive affirmations and gratitude that have been key for me. These are suggestions but I recommend if stress has become a problem for you then find a couple of things you can start incorporating in to your life daily.

In health and happiness

~Alison Wensrich, holistic health coach, MS, PA-C