How stress affects digestion

Published May 6, 2021

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Our brains and our guts are more in sync than you may realise. You may have noticed an
uneasy feeling in your abdomen during stressful periods. Perhaps you felt “butterflies”,
nauseous, bloated, had looser bowel motions or abdominal pain. That’s because the digestive
system is intimately connected to our emotional health. Stress can affect the nerves of the
digestive tract, which can in turn upset the intricate balance of digestion.

In response to stressful situations, the digestive process may slow down or be temporarily
disrupted causing abdominal discomfort and other symptoms. Of course, this connection goes
both ways and digestive distress may cause or heighten stress in some instances — it can be a
case of the chicken or the egg. For many people, their intestinal upset may seem to have no
physical cause. In these circumstances, it’s important to recognise the role of stress and anxiety
in our digestive health.

The brain-gut connection

When trying to understand how stress affects digestion, it’s important to understand the
connection between the brain and the gut. Our gut has its own nervous system; the enteric
nervous system which is commonly referred to by digestive experts as our “second brain”. This
is because our gastrointestinal system shares many nerve pathways and nerve endings with our
brain, with many of the communication pathways controlled by the same signals as well.

When we feel stressed or during periods of increased anxiety, this triggers our brain to release
adrenaline as well as the stress hormone, cortisol. These can both have adverse reactions for
our digestive system. Serotonin, which heavily affects our mood regulation as is known as the
‘happiness chemical’ is also heavily implicated in digestive issues. Over 95% of the serotonin in
our bodies is located in the gut, rather than the brain.

Ways that stress affects digestion

Triggers indigestion — Stress and nervousness can be a trigger for symptoms of
indigestion in some people.

Alters bowel habits — Stress can influence the movement and contractions of the
digestive tract but its effects may differ from person to person. In some people
stress will slow the digestive process and lead to constipation, while people will
experience loose, watery stools and need to empty their bowels frequently.

Produces nausea — Nearly everyone will be able to remember a time when their
nervousness made them feel sick to their stomach. A period of high stress can
produce immediate gastrointestinal distress in some people and trigger symptoms
such as nausea and stomachaches.

Causes bloating — By slowing down the process of digestion, a person under a
period of stress may also be prone to stomach bloating.

Worsens digestive conditions — Strong emotions can worsen digestive
conditions in susceptible people. Although research shows stressful situations isn’t
what initially causes these conditions, it can cause flare-ups. Stress can also make
existing gastrointestinal pain seem much worse.

Affects intestinal flora — Stress‐induced changes can affect the healthy balance
of bacteria in the digestive tract. Exposure to stress can decrease beneficial
bacteria and increase harmful bacteria, which can negatively affect general
digestive health.

Instigates inflammation — Stress or other psychological conditions can cause
inflammation of the digestive tract, which may lead to long-term health issues.

Foods to help with stress and anxiety

Certain foods and lifestyle choices can help to reduce your anxiety and aid in digestion. This
includes drinking less alcohol and reducing the amount of sugar in your diet, as sugar can
cause an imbalance between the good and bad bacteria in your gut and, in turn, trigger your
stress response. As a result, cutting out these foods can help with anxiety. You can also
increase your consumption of foods which help improve digestion to help with anxiety. These
include foods that are rich in probiotics of those that help the body produce more digestive
enzymes like kefir, kimchi and yogurt.

Due to the link between the brain and the gut, proper nutrition can help to improve symptoms of
anxiety. There are many compounds which may help alleviate mild anxiety, so incorporating
foods that are rich in these compounds into your diet — alongside other stress-reduction
techniques — may help to reduce your stress levels.

Vitamin DVitamin D is prevalent in foods like salmon, sardines, and egg yolks.
Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to anxiety and one should ensure adequate
Vitamin D levels.

Vitamin E — Nuts (in particular almonds) are a great source of vitamin E which is an
antioxidant that can be beneficial for easing anxiety.

Omega-3Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid found in fatty fish, avocado and chia
seeds among other foods. Omega-3 is known to have a strong relationship with mental
health as it promotes healthy brain function.

Chamomile — Chamomile tea is widely used as a calming drink. Clinical trials have
shown that people who drink chamomile tea regularly saw a reduction in symptoms of
mild anxiety.

Theanine — Theanine is an amino acid that is found in green tea which has calming
effects and has been shown to reduce anxiety and tension. Macha tea also contains
very high levels of theanine.

Selenium — Brazil nuts are very high in selenium. This compound has been shown to
reduce inflammation which is often increased during periods of stress. Several studies
have shown that a high-selenium diet can significantly improve mood.

Nature’s Own offers a range of dietary supplements which can help improve your digestion and
help to reduce your stress levels. Browse our range of Detox and Digestion supplements, as
well as our supplements that can help with Stress and Anxiety.

Learn about which Nature's Own product may be appropriate for you.

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