Can Stress Cause Problems with My Gut?

Jake Newby

| 4 min read

Almost everyone has experienced that “sick to your stomach” sensation. It doesn’t seem to stem from anything physical, and instead seems triggered by an external situation. Receiving bad news about a family member. Encountering issues with a significant other. Preparing for an uncomfortable situation at work. These are working examples of the brain-gut connection.
Researchers have found that major stressful events in a person’s past could dictate how their body reacts to stress the future, in some cases leading to long-lasting immunity issues and future gut issues or disfunction. External moments of stress impact us physically because the gastrointestinal (GI) tract is sensitive to emotion. Stress is linked to changes in gut bacteria, which in turn can influence mood. Thus, the gut’s nerves and bacteria strongly influence the brain and vice versa.
When experiencing problems with gut health, it’s important to identify issues that can be stress-induced, so you’re better equipped to receive proper treatment.

Examining the brain-gut connection

The brain has a direct effect on the stomach and intestines. Harvard Health states that even the thought of eating can release the stomach's juices before any food arrives. Stress is linked to changes in the intestines and gut bacteria, which in turn can influence mood, making this connection bidirectional; the gut’s nerves and bacteria strongly influence the brain, and vice versa. When stress affects brain-gut communication, bloating, pain and other gut discomfort may be felt more easily.

How different parts of the gut are affected by stress

The GI system requires the esophagus, stomach, intestines, colon, and bowel to work together. Stress can disrupt the cohesion of the GI system in various ways.
  • Esophagus: Stress can cause individuals to eat more or less than they’re used to. When the body is introduced to increased foods or influx of new foods, it may experience heartburn or acid reflux. Stress or exhaustion can also make heartburn pain more common or recurring. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), a rare case of spasms in the esophagus may be triggered by intense stress and can sometimes be mistaken for a heart attack. Stress can also make swallowing foods more difficult or increase the amount of air that is swallowed, leading to an increase in burping, gassiness, and bloating.
  • Stomach: When stress affects brain-gut communication, bloating, pain and other gut discomfort may be felt more easily. Vomiting may occur if the stress is severe enough. Multiple studies have shown that acute stress can lead to decreased eating while chronic stress can lead to increased eating. An unhealthy diet can negatively impact our mental health. Conversely, certain foods and food groups can help decrease inflammation, which can in turn decrease the stress hormone known as cortisol. 
  • Bowel: Stress can affect how quickly food moves through the body, according to the APA. This can lead to diarrhea or constipation. Stress can also induce muscle spasms in the bowel, which can lead to moderate to severe discomfort. Since the intestines have a tight barrier to protect the body from many food-related bacteria, stress can weaken the intestinal barrier and allow gut bacteria to enter the body. The immune system may neutralize most of these bacteria, but when this process recurs, the bowel may be prone to chronic mild symptoms. Finally, stress can impact people with chronic bowel disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) by triggering chemicals in the brain that then trigger pain signals in gut that may cause the colon to react.

Stress management tips

Several strategies can help people cope with chronic stress, thus reducing its potential impact on gut health:
Meditation: By taking a few moments to shut out the world, breathe and be still, a state of deep relaxation for the mind and body takes place. There are several types of meditation to choose from, including guided meditation, mantra meditation and mindfulness meditation.
Yoga: Practicing yoga combines the mental health benefits of meditation with the physical benefits of exercise. Physical activity reduces cortisol levels while boosting the production of mood-boosting endorphins. Yoga’s emphasis on breath and focus helps establish a sense of calm while poses improve the body’s circulation, strength, flexibility and balance.
Self-Care: Making time for self-care is a crucial part of managing stress. Establish boundaries between work and home life, eat a balanced, nutritious diet, exercise regularly and participate in hobbies. Maintaining a healthy social support network is another key element of self-care.
Seek additional support: If the previously mentioned practices don’t help reduce stress levels and there’s a continued feeling of depression or being overwhelmed, seek help from a licensed mental health professional. Consulting with a professional can help uncover any underlying factors contributing to symptoms and lead to the development of a customized treatment plan.
In addition to practicing these tips, it’s crucial to contact your primary care provider if you are experiencing recurring gut issues. Stress could be responsible in the ways listed above, but some symptoms can also be nonspecific, meaning they may be associated with other health conditions. Talk with your PCP to determine what type of testing or treatment may be needed in your specific case. 
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