Have you ever had the bad kind of “butterflies” in your stomach or, worse, a wave of nausea before speaking in front of a large group of people? What about a sudden bout of hiccups or diarrhea while trying to manage an important work deadline? These uncomfortable, gastrointestinal responses are common examples of how stress affects our digestive tract.
The digestive system is uniquely attuned to anxiety and stress due to a complex communication system known as the brain-gut axis.
The brain-gut axis is a bidirectional communication link between the central nervous system (which consists of the brain and spinal cord) and the enteric nervous system (which controls gastrointestinal behavior). Since the enteric nervous system is embedded in the gut, and operates independently from the brain, it is often referred to as the second brain.
“The enteric nervous system doesn’t seem capable of thought as we know it, but it communicates back and forth with our big brain—with profound results,” Dr. Jay Pasricha, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology, said in a Johns Hopkins Medicine post.
Unfortunately, stress can have a negative impact on the brain-gut axis and disrupt the digestive system in a number of significant ways:
Stress can trigger spasms in the digestive system. These contractions, called peristalsis, help nutrients move through the digestive tract. They begin in the esophagus as we swallow food and end with the elimination of waste through the rectum. The spasms can either delay digestion, which can lead to bloating and constipation, or speed it up, causing abdominal pain and diarrhea.
Changes in gut bacteria
While the research is still ongoing, studies have found that stress may alter the gut microbiome. The evidence suggests that stress leads to an imbalance in the microbiome, causing weakening of the intestinal walls and disrupting normal functioning of the immune and endocrine systems. Furthermore, Medical News Today reports that “there is a significant relationship between gut bacteria and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.” This information helps us better understand the profound connection between our mental and physical health.
Healthline reports that stress may be related to heartburn or acid reflux. The theory is based on the fact that stress often interferes with our usual health habits. It disrupts our sleep, causes us to eat too much or not enough and leads to the use of alcohol or tobacco to calm our nerves. These changes produce an increased sensitivity to the acids in our stomach which triggers heartburn and acid reflux.
Contributes to serious gastrointestinal conditions
Research indicates that exposure to long and short term stress is associated with the onset or worsening of several serious digestive conditions such as:
● Inflammatory Bowel disease (IBD)
● Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
● Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
● Ulcerative colitis
Research also suggests that stress can impact the gut and vice versa, so it’s important to take care of both. If stress is causing you any sort of gastrointestinal discomfort, you may want to consider the following tips in addition to checking in with your doctor:
● Practice yoga or routinely take a long, brisk walk to relieve tension
● Increase your intake of grains, leafy green vegetables and fatty fish
● Maintain gut health and regularity with a daily serving of psyllium husk.
● Regularly schedule “Me Time”. Plan time to relax and unwind by reading a book, taking a warm bath, or meditating.
● Choose foods carefully. Eliminate spicy food, sugar and fatty foods during stressful times.
● Support your gut health with probiotics. Try a dietary supplement or have some miso soup, yogurt or kimchi to improve the diversity of your microbiome.