Stress & your Gut

Feb 27, 2022 | Nutrition


One of my favorite measures of stress is HRV or Heart Rate Variability.


So what is HRV (heart rate variability)?

Your HRV measures the variation in time between each heartbeat. It is controlled by the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Your ANS controls involuntary functions such as heart beat, breathing and digestion. You typically have 2 states, sympathetic (fight or flight) & parasympathetic (rest and digest).  Your HRV stems from your nervous system. It is a measure of your ‘readiness’ or how well your body is balancing between these 2 states & adapting to the environment. When our HRV is chronically low, we are stuck in our flight or fight. Low HRV = stress. This can negatively impact gut functions.  


What is a good HRV?

It is highly individualized and factors such as age & gender play a big role. Research has identified a “gold standard,” from the data, if you are under 60 and your HRV is chronically below 40, your body is under stress and needs some extra support.


How does your HRV impact your gut health?

Research shows that chronically low HRVs are associated with conditions such as IBS, which includes bloating, cramping, and poor bowel movements. It makes sense now that you know low HRVs are associated with a stressed-out body. Stress decreases gut motility, slows down digestion, hinders absorption, lowers immune function, affects the gut lining (hello, leaky gut), and impairs detoxification.


Stress can alter the balance of healthy bacteria in your gut, causing the bad bugs to outnumber the good ones. So again, it is not just what you eat, but also how you feel & how stressed you are. If you can’t properly digest and absorb nutrients, this impacts all body areas, from your hair and skin to your kidney and liver.


Here are some free, easy ways to improve your HRV:

  1. Deep breathing. It’s one of the most effective tools to activate your vagus nerve and reduce the stress in your body. A great tool to use before you eat when you feel stressed. Box breathing is my favorite.
  2. Nature walks. Time spent in nature literally reduces cortisol- your stress hormone. Negative ions found in the air have been shown to lower stress levels and strengthen circadian rhythms.
  3. Limit Alcohol and excessive caffeine, which can both disrupt our rhythms and stress out the body.
  4. Hydrate: the more hydrated you are, the easier it is for your blood to circulate and deliver oxygen & nutrients to your cells. Make sure to add in minerals in times of stress to ensure proper cellular hydration. Add in sea salt, coconut water or aloe vera as great sources of minerals.
  5. Embrace whole, real carbs such as fruits, black rice, beans, quinoa, and root veggies as they lower cortisol.
  6. Quality sleep : Aim for eight hours. But also its not just the amount of sleep, but also the quality. Avoid eating 2-3 hours before bed as that can disrupt sleep quality. Also limit blue light & most importantly, be consistent, go to sleep & wake up at similar times each day.  
  7. Exercise smartly:  exercise is key but know your limits. Doing too much HIIT can backfire and worsen gut issues and stress the body resulting in lower HRVs. If you are feeling stressed, choose lower impact workouts or walks. Listen to your body. Also try to exercise in morning or early afternoon. Avoid late evening exercise.
  8. Build in rest & recovery days.

I currently use the Oura ring to track my HRV. For me, the 3 things that lower my HRV are late-night eating, over-exercising and poor sleep.