We likely all feel stress at various life stages, whether you’re waiting to hear if you got your dream job or anticipating a difficult family situation. While stress can be a normal response to daily challenges, chronic stress can significantly impact our physical health. One of the areas of your body that can be affected by stress is the digestive system. You may experience stomach cramps, bloating, gas, constipation, and diarrhea if stressed. In this article, we will explore the connection between stress and digestive issues and what you can do to manage them.
The Connection between Stress and Digestive Issues
Our brain and gut are more in sync than you may realize. For instance, the very thought of food can cause the stomach to produce digestive juices or the thought of giving a big presentation may cause constipation or uncontrollable bowels. The brain and gut are in constant communication. This direct relationship causes our gastrointestinal system to be sensitive to emotions and reactions such as stress.
When we are stressed, our brain sends signals for chemicals such as adrenaline, serotonin (a hormone that affects mood and is found in the digestive system) as well as the stress hormone cortisol to be released. These hormones can cause adverse reactions.
Stress negatively affects our digestive system in many ways. It can cause a decrease in blood and oxygen flow to the stomach, cramping, an imbalance in gut bacteria and inflammation. These symptoms can further develop into gastrointestinal (GI) disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), irritable bowel disease (IBD), peptic ulcers or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
How does stress affect digestion?
In the case of a less severe attack, your digestive system still slows way down and could cause you to suffer in a number of ways. Low-grade stressors that can impact your metabolism include a poor diet, certain medications, work-related anxiety, a lack of sleep, or negative thoughts, just to name a few.
There is a connection between stress and digestion. Let’s learn about the four ways that stress impacts your digestion!
1. Stress causes heartburn
Heartburn affects most of our population. The biggest selling over-the-counter medications are digestive aids. The physiologic stress response can cause the sphincter that closes off the esophagus from the stomach to spasm. When this happens, stomach acid can make its way back up into the esophagus, causing it to burn your esophageal lining. Over time, this can leave you in a lot of pain and more prone to disease. Taking heartburn medication provides temporary relief as it decreases or stops the production of stomach acid altogether. If you stop taking the medication, however, chances are the heartburn will return.
To address heartburn, you need to uncover why you have it in the first place. Many people associate heartburn with poor diet, smoking and drinking alcohol. But anxiety and a fast-paced schedule can also be to blame.
If you constantly have heartburn, and you aren’t eating the common food triggers, you can evaluate if emotional stress is “eating you up” from the inside. If you are questioning whether your thoughts can affect your physicality, then think of something that makes you angry and notice how your heartbeat instantly rises. These negative emotions can create a constant low-stress level, often presenting as heartburn. Taking the time to notice these feelings, process them and let them go, can lead you back into emotional balance. This can have a profound effect on how you digest food.
2. Stress affects gut immunity
Did you know that your digestive system is the largest immune organ in your body? Roughly 60-80% of your body’s immunity is housed in your gut. Your digestive system is large and can house pounds of bacteria. Some of it is good bacteria, and some of it is not so good.
Your good bacteria help you to fight off viruses, help you to digest your food and help to produce chemical reactions to help your brain and body function properly. This good bacteria is vital to your body’s immune function.
When you are in a stress response, the chemical reaction that is produced by the sympathetic nervous system wipes out a large proportion of your good gut bacteria. Over time, this can lead to a weakened immune system and overall inflammation of the body.
You can strengthen your immune system by taking a probiotic supplement; eating foods that naturally contain probiotics, such as kefir, kimchi and yogurt; and limiting foods with refined sugar.
3. Stress can cause constipation or the opposite
When you eat, your food should be in your digestive system for a certain length of time. This allows your gut to absorb the nutrients it needs, and, at the same time, allows it to get rid of any waste. When you are stressed, digestion can literally shut down. This can lead to constipation which interrupts the detoxification process that naturally happens during normal digestion. This can lead to a whole host of problems including gas, bloating, stomach pain and weight gain.
Stress can also have the opposite effect on your digestive tract. Stress might cause food to move too quickly through your system, not leaving enough time for the nutrients to be absorbed, which leads to nutritional deficiencies and other problems.
4. Stress can weaken your digestive metabolism
The stress response can affect your digestive system by decreasing overall blood flow to the body. When you are stressed, your blood flow is redirected to the brain and to the limbs, as your body perceives you are under attack. Your blood gets directed to these parts of your body for quick thinking and fighting or fleeing. If your body is stressed and you are eating too fast, eating in a negative emotional state or eating too much, it can cause your metabolism to slow down.
Stress chemistry produces two hormones in your body – cortisol and insulin. The hormones that are released when you are stressed tell the body to store weight, store fat and not build muscle. To avoid this from happening in your body – you should slow down and breathe! Your body will best metabolize food when you are relaxed.
How to reduce your stress levels?
Reducing the amount of stress you feel day-to-day may help support both your gut health and full-body health. To relax your body and mind, Harvard Health Publishing suggests that the following psychotherapy treatments might be a smart place to start:
Relaxation therapy – Through visualization, deep breathing, and muscle relaxation exercises, relaxation therapy aims to help you experience stress less intensely and to stop yourself from becoming stressed in the first place.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – This form of therapy is geared toward those who experience regular anxiety. Patients unlearn thought patterns and replace them with helpful coping skills to mitigate feelings of stress.
If you’re experiencing high-stress levels or gastrointestinal discomfort, speak with your healthcare provider to identify a management plan that works best for you and your body.
When to see a doctor?
Stress and digestive issues can significantly impact our physical and mental health, but the good news is that they can be managed. If you are experiencing digestive issues and are struggling to resolve them with lifestyle changes, it is important to seek the help of a gastroenterologist. With their expertise and guidance, you can develop a personalized plan to manage your symptoms and return to feeling your best.