You don’t need a PhD in physiology to know that stress can be hard on the stomach. Whether it was speaking in public or a bad break-up, those butterflies weren’t in your head.
The impact of stress on the stomach goes far beyond indigestion, however. In recent years, doctors have uncovered a remarkably complex connection between the brain and the digestive system. The entire system is extremely sensitive to our moods. In fact, experts now see stress as a major player in a wide range of digestive problems, including irritable bowel syndrome, indigestion, and heartburn.
We all talk about “gut feelings,” but few of us really appreciate the amazingly strong connections between the brain and the digestive system. The stomach and intestines actually have more nerve cells than the entire spinal cord, leading some experts to call the digestive system a “mini brain.” A highway of nerves runs directly from the real brain to the digestive system, and messages flow in two directions. Consider this: 95 percent of the body’s serotonin — a hormone that helps control mood — is found in the digestive system, not the brain.
There are sound reasons why our digestive system should pay such close attention to our brains. In times of stress, our bodies are designed to focus on the things that can help us stay alive. When our ancestors had to fight off hyenas or run away from cave bears, they didn’t want to waste any energy on less important things like proper digestion.
All of your feelings create physiological changes, and stress is no exception.
While under stress, your heart rate can go up, your blood pressure may rise, and blood is shunted away from your midsection, going to your arms, legs, and head for quick thinking, fighting, or fleeing.
This is meant to be a temporary response to help with survival, but when stress becomes chronic, as it is the case for millions of people, it can greatly affect your health, creating destruction on your gut and digestive health.
How Stress Impacts Your Gut
The stress response causes a number of detrimental events in your gut, including:
- Decreased nutrient absorption
- Decreased oxygenation to your gut
- As much as four times less blood flow to your digestive system, which leads to decreased metabolism
- Decreased enzymatic output in your gut
Here are other digestive conditions that can be aggravated by stress:
- Indigestion: Your stomach growls, aches, or burns. Sometimes you feel bloated or nauseated, and you vomit or belch. These could all be signs of an ulcer, but millions of people without ulcers have these symptoms, too. Doctors call this “functional dyspepsia,” but it’s better known as indigestion. Indigestion is the second most common functional GI disorder, after IBS. These symptoms usually fade when a person has a chance to relax.
- Heartburn: There are many possible causes for heartburn, from overproduction of stomach acid to overindulgence in pizza. Whatever its cause, stress can definitely make heartburn worse. Researchers speculated that stress could pump up the stomach’s production of acid or make the esophagus extra sensitive to pain.
- Ulcers: Past generations thought ulcers were a sign of stress, and they weren’t far from wrong. It’s now known that most ulcers are caused by a bacterial infection. Some researchers theorize that stress may help the infection take hold, perhaps by disturbing the stomach’s delicate balance of hydrochloric acid and protective secretions, making it more vulnerable to ulcers.
- Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease: These conditions — known together as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) — are most definitely not caused by stress. But once the diseases take hold, a bout of stress can worsen symptoms.
Likewise, stress results in alterations of your brain-gut connection, which can contribute to or directly cause numerous gastrointestinal disorders, including:
Keeping Stress Under Control to Aid Digestion
Other stress reducers include:
- Diet: Balance your blood sugar levels by eating small meals frequently throughout the day. Unbalanced blood levels can lead to a stress stomach or aggravate an existing condition. Include whole grains such as oats, quinoa, or brown rice with every meal. These foods contain high levels of B-vitamins and fiber, and increase your body’s ability to make serotonin, which has a calming effect on the body and eases anxiety.
- Supplements: B-vitamins are also calming to the nervous system and the fiber keeps your bowels moving. Increase your B-vitamin intake by consuming brown rice and leafy green vegetables.
Calcium and magnesium also have a calming effect on the body. Sea vegetables, green leafy vegetables, nuts, and yogurt can provide you with a good amount of these nutrients.
5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) helps increase serotonin levels, which can have a calming effect. Do not take this supplement if you are on antidepressants. Chromium can help to balance blood sugar levels.
Digestive enzymes, such as lipases, proteases, and amylases, help you digest food more effectively so that less irritation is caused in the stomach. Also, betaine hydrochloride tablets will help support stomach acid levels and help with digestion.
Probiotics, friendly bacteria found in the gut, can prevent the overgrowth of candida and other harmful microbes.
Caffeine and refined sugars in alcohol can make symptoms worse, so avoid them. They will cause blood sugar imbalances and increase stressed stomach symptoms.
- Exercise: One of the best ways to manage stress and maintain healthy digestion is moderate exercise. Physical activity relieves tension and stimulates the release of brain chemicals called endorphins that relieve stress and improve your mood.
- Relaxation therapy. People who have stress-related problems with digestion often benefit from relaxation therapies such as yoga, meditation, hypnosis, progressive muscle relaxation, mental imaging, biofeedback, and even music.
- Talk therapy. Talking to friends or loved ones about your stress can be a big help, and actual talk therapy that involves working with a therapist can be particularly valuable. A trained therapist can help you find better ways to deal with your stress.
- Limit stressors. Resist easing stress by smoking or using alcohol. Relying on drugs to deal with stress can also be tough on digestion. Avoid too much coffee and soft drinks that give you a jolt of caffeine and sugar.
If your digestive system isn’t running smoothly, don’t suffer in silence. If your doctor can’t find a physical explanation for your digestive troubles, you may need to calm your mind before you can calm your stomach. You can do your part to battle stress by eating well, exercising regularly, and getting plenty of sleep.
A certain amount of stress is unavoidable. We all have to deal with it. It’s important to know that stress can upset healthy digestion and make many digestive diseases worse. If you are having symptoms of stress that are interfering with digestion, talk to your doctor. You may have a digestive problem that needs treatment.
Arsenicum album: Perfectionists and high achievers while pushing themselves to meet impossibly high, self-set standards can often benefit from this remedy. Symptoms include extreme restlessness at night and in the early hours of the morning, which interferes with sound sleep. When highly stressed, sufferers may become anxious about health issues, and show sings of becoming obsessive or compulsive. The digestive system is also affected by nausea and queasiness at the thought or smell of food, and diarrhea may develop when feeling uptight and tense.
Lycopodium: If there is a noticeable amount of noisy gurgling and rumbling combined with acid reflux, use Lycopodium. Signature symptoms are noticeably aggravated or triggered by stress. Dietary factors can also trigger the condition, with very high-fiber foods having a noticeably adverse effect on digestion. Appetite is also irregular, with a tendency to sit down to a meal feeling ravenously hungry, but becoming quickly satisfied, leaving most of the meal untouched.
Colocynthis: This remedy has a reputation for relieving colicky pains that come on in waves after eating and drinking. These are eased temporarily by bending over, which is done instinctively as a way of applying pressure to the abdomen. When this remedy is well-indicated, episodes of watery diarrhea are accompanied by excessive gas. Common triggers of IBS associated with this remedy include anger and/or emotional stress.
Nux vomica: If indigestion arises as a result of overindulgence in rich or junk foods, alcohol, strong coffee, or cigarettes, try Nux vomica. If you feel strung out, tense, and highly stressed, this remedy is almost certain to help resolve symptoms. Additional symptoms may include feeling hung over and constipated, which is worse in the morning and slightly improves as the day goes on, especially if it becomes possible to have a bowel movement.