Is There a Link Between Stress and Digestion?

Have you ever had a public performance or speech to give and not been able to eat beforehand? Or have you experienced constant stomach upset during a stressful time?

These are examples of how stress can impact your digestion.

Indeed, the body’s nervous system and gut are closely linked. Intense stress may have a temporary impact on digestion. However, extreme stress can lead to more serious digestive health issues.

Here’s what you need to know about stress and digestion, as well as ways to find calm to protect your gut.

The Gut-Brain Connection

Did you know your gut is lined with millions upon millions of neurons? It’s true – some experts report there’s more neurons in the gut than in the human spinal cord.

These millions of nerve cells line your gut from your esophagus to your rectum – and comprise what’s called the enteric nervous system that regulates digestion. It’s sometimes called the “second brain.”

The enteric nervous system is part of the greater autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary life-sustaining functions such as breathing, your heartbeat, blood pressure, and body temperature.

Your gut’s close connection to the brain is what makes it so sensitive to stress.

Stress and Digestion

When the body’s “fight or flight” stress response is activated by what your brain perceives to be a threat, it triggers a cascade of physiological changes controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. Your heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration increase – and your digestion slows.

These changes allow your body to fight off the threat or flee. The body slows the processes that aren’t necessary for survival (such as digestion) and quickens the ones that are critical.

Once the threat has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, and your body’s blood pressure returns to normal, heart rate comes down, breathing settles down – and digestion resumes. The parasympathetic nervous system is often referred to as the “rest and digest” response. It returns the body to homeostasis after a stressful event.

The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are also part of the autonomic nervous system.

However, in today’s world, there are numerous perceived threats in daily living, which can keep the body in a fight or flight stress response continually. This intense, persistent stress can wreak havoc on digestive health.

Stress-Related Digestive Issues

Stress and Digestion 2 Temporary and milder bouts of stress can cause nausea, indigestion, diarrhea, and constipation. Research has shown that prolonged, extreme stress can decrease blood flow to the gut and lead to cramping, inflammation, and an imbalance of gut bacteria.

These, in turn, can exacerbate more serious gastrointestinal (GI) health problems. Intense stress can lead to acid reflux, inflammatory issues in the gut, and irritable gut health problems too.

The American Psychological Association reports that stress in early life can alter the development of the nervous system as well as the body’s reaction to stress. These changes can increase the risk for later gut health issues as well.

What’s more, having these conditions may trigger feelings of anxiousness, causing a vicious circle of stress.

Stress can create digestive distress in other insidious ways too. These include:

  • Making the process of swallowing foods difficult or increasing the swallowing of air, which increases burping, gassiness, and bloating.
  • Causing stomach pain – when stress makes pain, bloating, nausea, and other stomach distress may be felt more acutely. Severe stress can cause vomiting.
  • Dramatically increasing or decreasing appetite. An increased appetite can promote unhealthy food choices, which can cause more stress.
  • Affecting motility in the GI tract – either by speeding it up or slowing it down, which can cause either diarrhea or constipation – and in some cases may cause painful muscle spasms in the bowel.

5 of the Best Ways to Manage Stress and Support Healthy Digestion

The good news is that there’s a lot you can do to keep stress levels in check to allow your body to “rest and digest.”

Among the top recommendations are the following:

  1. Diaphragmatic Breathing – Shown to help calm feelings of anxiousness, practice taking deep breaths for a number of counts, holding it in between, and then breathing out to the same number of counts. Do it 10 times.
  2. Practice Regular Exercise – Aerobic exercise, when you get your heart rate up, is especially good for relieving stress.
  3. Yoga and MeditationYoga and meditation may help to reduce feelings of anxiousness. Practice one or both regularly to help you handle stressful life situations better.
  4. Psychotherapy – Psychotherapy (especially cognitive behavioral therapy) can help you better manage the stresses and challenges that can contribute to digestive distress.
  5. Hobbies – When you get lost in a hobby or activity you enjoy, it helps you to get into a flow state of relaxation, which can activate the parasympathetic nervous system and help you to relax.

A Calming Note

Sometimes doing nothing at all except for sipping a cup of herbal tea and staring out the window is all one needs for relaxation. Keep your thoughts calm, and your gut will follow.

However, if you’re experiencing serious gut health problems, be sure to reach out to your medical doctor.


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Kim Henderson