How does stress affect the digestive system?

by | Nov 13, 2023 | gut health and digestion

Symptoms of stress don’t just affect our mental health but also our overall health, including our gut health. But exactly how does stress affect the digestive system? And what can you do about it? This article will explain why stress causes problems in our gut and how we can fix these problems using simple lifestyle changes.

How do stressful situations affect your digestion?

Stressful situations have become such a normal part of our lives that we often don’t realise the effect that these events can have on our bodies. But whether you are aware of it or not, increased stress levels do cause digestive problems. For instance, chronic stress doesn’t just raise your blood pressure. It is a potential cause of peptic ulcers, diarrhoea, constipation, bloating, gas, heartburn, acid reflux, as well as other gastrointestinal conditions. But, times of stress can also cause existing problems such as stomach ulcers or irritable bowel worsen. It may even trigger an autoimmune condition such as inflammatory bowel disease.

It’s important to understand that the brain responds to different stressors in the same way. Whether there is a risk of actual physical harm or we experience an emotionally stressful event or thought, the response is the same. The brain immediately sends out stress hormones.

This triggers a complex series of events inside the body. The aim of our stress responses is to channel resources into those bodily functions that help us physically respond to threats. This is commonly called the fight or flight response.

The vagus nerve, your gut-brain connection

Any distress can affect the body in many ways. This is because of the mind-body connection via the nervous system‘s most important communication channel—the vagus nerve. This nerve stretches from the brain all the way through the abdomen to the large intestine and connects to many digestive organs.

If your body is in survival mode, it wants all the available energy to escape the imminent perceived danger. This can mean a change in body functions that normally happen automatically in the background, such as bowel habits.

The digestive process may stop, slow down or speed up, so people can have a wide range of bowel symptoms. If your digestion slows, food may sit in your stomach for longer than it normally would, causing bloating, pain and constipation. And, your brain might send signals for you to stop eating, so you lose your appetite and so eat less food than usual.

On the other hand, if the bowel speeds up, it can trigger the opposite digestive symptoms, causing diarrhoea and frequent trips to the loo. And you might experience food cravings, especially for sweet, energy-rich foods.

Stress increases the risk of a leaky gut

Higher stress levels can damage the digestive tract through its effects on the intestinal mucosa. When we’re stressed out, our body produces hormones called Corticotropin-Releasing Factors (CRF). CRFs cause the adrenal glands to produce cortisol, which prepares us to fight or flee from danger. In the digestive system, these hormone peptides influence motility, gut secretions and the functions of the intestinal lining, increasing the risk of a leaky gut.

Leaky gut syndrome occurs when there is too much inflammation in the intestinal lining. This means it is easy for bacteria and toxins to enter the bloodstream, causing systemic inflammation throughout the body.

Leaky gut syndrome has a role in autoimmune diseases, allergies, depression, anxiety, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, migraines, headaches, insomnia, and many other conditions.

How stress increases the risk of intestinal infection

Studies show that stress can also affect the composition of the intestinal microbiome. Your gut microbiome is the collection of micro-organisms that live inside your gastrointestinal tract. These microbes play a role in digestion, immunity, metabolism, and overall wellbeing. When you’re stressed, your gut microbiome can become imbalanced, leading to inflammation, weight gain, and other problems.

Research shows that these changes can cause an increase in certain types of microbes in the colon and may result in reduced bacterial diversity. Adverse changes in our gut microbiome, such as reduced diversity, may increase our risk of being infected by intestinal pathogens.

Furthermore, the intestinal lining has a protective layer of mucous or mucin gel. In animal studies, stressful situations caused an increase in mucin production. However, under conditions of chronic stress, the animals were less able to produce the protective mucous and so the intestinal lining was more susceptible to infection with pathogenic species.

If you’re experiencing diarrhoea, bloating, gas, constipation, or stomach pain, it may be because your gut is infected with harmful bacteria. This happens when the beneficial bacteria in your gut are overwhelmed by pathogenic bacteria, a condition called dysbiosis. If you are concerned that this is affecting you, there are lab tests that can identify an imbalance of beneficial and pathogenic organisms in your gut.

Sometimes regularly eating probiotic foods such as yoghurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso soup, pickles, and fermented vegetables can help. These foods contain live cultures that may restore healthy balance to your gut.

Psychological stress and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth

Experimental studies confirm a relationship between stress and slowed intestinal transit time. Slow motility can result in an overgrowth of bad bacteria that ultimately compromises the intestinal barrier. So, chronic levels of stress can significantly contribute to both the development of a leaky gut and SIBO.

You can try to prevent the slowdown in gut motility by taking probiotics. Probiotic supplements contain live bacteria that help maintain healthy digestion. Some studies have shown that they may even reduce symptoms of IBS.

Another connection is the potential for increased cortisol levels during stressful times to decrease the secretion of gastric acid. A major role of stomach acid is to kill any bacteria that may be introduced with food. So a lack of stomach acid can increase the risk of SIBO.

You can encourage stomach acid secretion by eating bitter foods like leafy greens, including kale or rocket, and citrus fruits. Bitter tastes also trigger the release of gastric juices and bile acids and are a great way to improve digestion.

Maintain a healthy gut microbiome

Having a healthy gut microbiome helps to regulate gut permeability which may occur as an effect of being chronically exposed to stressful situations.

As well as ensuring you’re regularly eating probiotic foods, make sure you are feeding your gut microbes. Eating foods rich in fermentable fibres, such as a wide variety of vegetables and fruits, helps to maintain a healthy level of bacteria in the gut and promotes digestive health.

As well as being careful about food choices, there are several other ways to combat the effects of stress and support a healthy gut microbiome. Exercising regularly and learning a few relaxation techniques are excellent ways to help keep your gut microbiome happy. Meditation, yoga, tai chi, and deep breathing exercises are just a few options.

Different people experience stress symptoms for different reasons. Whether your stress is due to a long to-do list, financial worries or difficult life circumstances stress has similar effects on your body.

For instance, stress harms your gut health. And if you’re feeling sluggish and bloated after a stressful week, it’s likely because your stomach isn’t functioning properly. To prevent this from happening again, take steps now to reduce your stress levels.

Start by taking deep breaths whenever you find yourself feeling overwhelmed. Then, before bedtime, practice relaxation techniques like meditation or yoga. Finally, eat healthy foods (like fresh fruits and vegetables) and drink lots of water.

If you know how stress affects the digestive system, you can take steps to avoid these problems. These stress reduction strategies will help you relax and improve your overall well-being.


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