Stress and digestive issues: how are they related?
Aug 17, 2022
Stress is, unfortunately, a common universal experience. You might be worried about a big house move, having trouble at work, or perhaps going through a difficult period in your relationship. Whatever the cause, stress is - sadly - a fact of life.
Even once you understand what stress is, it can be tough to know how to manage it, and how to recognise the symptoms. The signs of stress can take a toll on your daily life, particularly if you suffer from digestive problems as a result of feeling stressed.
We've all had those nervous times where we've felt that familiar feeling of butterflies in the stomach. But if you've ever experienced stomach issues when you're worried, or experienced that horrible sense of gut-wrenching anxiety, you probably already know how stress levels can affect your gut. Indeed, these are all ways that stress, worry and anxiety can affect and interact with the digestive process.
How stress can affect digestion
It might not seem obvious, but your brain and your gut are very closely linked. They're the ultimate double act, and are always communicating and connecting. In fact, evidence suggests that there are more neurons in the gut than across the whole spinal cord, showing how crucial the gut-brain axis is.1
Stress can also be described as your body's fight or flight response kicking in, in response. to a perceived threat or distressing situation. When your body detects threats, your sympathetic nervous system - a collection of nerves, hormones and brain structures - sends out cortisol, the stress hormone, which triggers a range of physical responses.2
Some of these digestive symptoms of stress can include:
- Feelings of nausea or sickness
- Stomach ache
- Changes to appetite3
Sometimes, in cases of chronic stress and more serious cases, there can be a decrease in oxygen and blood flowing to the stomach. This can cause:
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Peptic ulcers
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)4
Why does stress affect the digestive system?
The gut-brain axis is one of the body's most crucial systems. Some research in Scientific American has even referred to the gut as the body's "second brain", showing how important it is to our overall health.5
You're probably familiar with the central nervous system - which is made up of our brain and spinal cord. However, a lesser-known body part is the enteric nervous system, which spreads right across the whole digestive tract. The sheer amount of neurons and nerve transmitters throughout this system is the reason many studies refer to this nervous system as a "second brain"
Our body exists in a state of delicate balance, and when something disrupts any part of it, we may experience all kinds of symptoms. When we're stressed, and our fight or flight response is set off, digestion slows (or even sometimes stops), allowing the body to focus its energy on battling the perceived stressor or threat.6
In some cases, anxiety and feeling stressed can also speed up the digestive process. This is why sometimes people lose their appetite, suffer from diarrhoea or need to nip to the toilet more often.7
This is why when you're dealing with particularly stressful situations - for example dealing with trouble at work, or even taking part in something like speaking in public - you might find your digestive system starts to cause some havoc, so to speak. As well as the psychological stress symptoms like worry and fear, you may also experience physical stress symptoms. These can include rapid breathing or an increased heart rate, but also often include things like stomach pains or needing to go to the toilet more often.
Tips to help manage stress and digestive conditions
While sometimes you will need to consult a doctor about gastrointestinal disorders or other health issues, you can try some simple tricks and remedies to help with some digestive problems.
We've put together some ideas on coping skills and wellness tips for reducing stress-related gastrointestinal conditions that might help.Manage your eating habits
As well as watching what foods we're eating from a nutritional perspective, it's important to think about how we eat. Many of us are guilty of wolfing down a quick sandwich at our desks, or eating late into the evening because of our busy lives. However, these habits that we pick up seemingly out of necessity can contribute to stomach problems and difficulty with digestion.Food time management
Try to eat regularly during the day, and if possible try not to skip meals. You should try to have your last meal no later than about two to three hours before getting into bed. Having a more ordered and set routine can also help with feelings of anxiety and stress.
It might sound silly, but also watch how fast you're eating. Eating too fast can be a cause of indigestion. One trick to getting this technique is to put your fork or spoon down between each bite. https://vm.tiktok.com/ZMNDQ2n6e/?k=1Watch what you eat
Research has shown that one of the side effects of stress is overeating, particularly when it involves certain foods full of sugar and/or fat. While we turn to comfort food for our mental health, this can actually lead to stomach problems and digestive troubles.
Try to turn to stress-reducing foods such as fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, fruits with vitamin C, or almonds (high in magnesium, which helps with cortisol levels).Give up smoking
While some still turn to cigarettes as a method of stress reduction, they can actually cause some of those gut problems.
As well as being a risk factor for other conditions, smoking can contribute to reflux, which in turn can cause heartburn, stomach ulcers and inflammatory bowel conditions.Try more physical activity
Turning to exercise such as yoga can be a great way to boost your mood, get your body moving and reduce stress. Meditation and other wellness exercises are also great options for helping your body stay healthy and boosting your mental health.
Exercise is, of course, crucial to our overall health. It boosts the release of endorphins from the brain - natural pain and stress relievers.Control your digestive conditions
If you suffer from IBS or another similar tummy issue, you'll already be very familiar with the relationship between stress and digestive issues. At JUVIA™, our research has found that many people suffering from these conditions are still searching for a solution to their symptoms. That's because everyone's digestive flora is unique and distinctive.
1 (Neuroscience, 2nd edition) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK11097/