Research reveals love hormone forms an important link between stress and digestive problems

Bonnie Evie Gifford
By Bonnie Evie Gifford,
updated on Sep 1, 2020

Research reveals love hormone forms an important link between stress and digestive problems

New research published in The Journal of Physiology shows that oxytocin plays an important role in combatting stress disrupting our digestive systems

Stress rarely leaves us feeling good physically or mentally, but research conducted at the Penn State University College of Medicine has revealed it could be having a greater impact on our digestive health than we might have realised.

New research has further highlighted the links between stress and digestive problems. The more stressed you feel, the longer it can take for food to leave your stomach (gastric emptying). This delay can leave you feeling nausea, bloating, general discomfort, and can even cause diarrhoea.

Using new ways to manipulate the neurocircuits that release oxytocin (an anti-stress hormone previously believed to only have minor effects on the nerves within your brain that regulate gastrointestinal functions) revealed that oxytocin circuits actually play a major role in how your body responds to stress’s effects on your stomach. When activated, these oxytocin circuits were shown to delay the gastric emptying that typically occurs due to stress.

Tested using rats with different types of stress, including acute stress, appropriate adaptation to stress, and inappropriate adaptation to stress, research indicates that oxytocin directly influences the neural pathways involved in the stress response, playing a major role in how our digestive system responds to stressors. Research also showed that the inappropriate responses to stress (our body’s inability to adapt to stress) can worsen the symptoms of many gastrointestinal issues, slowing digestion or causing diarrhoea.

Researcher R Alberto Travagli commented on their findings:

“Women are more vulnerable to stress and stress-related pathologies, such as anxiety and depression, and report a higher prevalence in gastrointestinal disorders. Our previous studies showed that vagal neural circuits are organized differently in males versus females.

“We are now finalizing a series of studies that investigate the role and the mechanisms through which oxytocin modulates gastric functions in stressed females. This will help to develop targeted therapies to provide relief for women with gastrointestinal disorders.”

The link between our gut and our wellbeing

The links between our gut health, our mental health and overall feelings of wellbeing are beginning to become clearer thanks to continued research.

Your digestive system produces over 90% of the serotonin (‘happy’ hormone) in your body, while your gut can also affect how immunity and resilience to stress.

While the digestive system can impact everything from our skin to our mood, knowing how to best look after our guts and improve our digestive health can be tricky. Nutritional therapist and health writer, Jenna, explains more about how you can improve your gut health.

When it comes to your gut, make sure you have plenty of the three Fs in your fiet: fibre, fat, and fermented foods.

“When it comes to your gut, make sure you have plenty of the three Fs in your diet: fibre, fat, and fermented foods. Fibre is vital for our gut health.

“We might be conditioned to think that fat is the enemy, but when it comes to digestion, we need healthy fats - such as the omega 3 found in wild fish - to help reduce inflammation in our guts.”

As for fermented foods? Rich in healthy bacteria, these are thought help to inhibit the development of a wide variety of conditions including IBS, type 2 diabetes, and even joint pain.

It’s not just our physical health that is affected by what we eat - it’s our mental health, too. Nutritional therapist and Nutritionist Resource member, Beanie Robinson, explains more about how altering your diets and improving our lifestyle can have a significant impact on your mood.

“Look broadly at your whole diet and lifestyle. It is important to consider factors like your stress levels, sleep quality, exercise routine, self-care routine, and your relationships. While a balanced diet is fundamental to a stable and positive mood, working multi-dimensionally to improve balance in more than one area of your life will help bring about more significant change.”

Just as with all worthwhile things in life, it would seem like there’s no single quick-fix solution to help keep our guts (and overall wellbeing) in tip-top shape. As research continues to reveal the different ways in which our physical and mental health are linked, we will continue to discover new, better ways to put our wellbeing first.

To discover more about gut health, or to find our more about the links between nutrition and mental health visit Nutritionist Resource.

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