How stress affects digestion

Published December 4, 2014

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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 digestion 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.1

In response to a stressful situation such as public speaking, the digestive process may slow down or be temporarily disrupted causing abdominal discomfort and other symptoms.2 Of course, this connection goes both ways and digestive distress may cause or heighten stress in some instances.

Here are some of the ways that stress affects digestion:

  • Triggers indigestion – Stress and nervousness can be a trigger for symptoms of indigestion in some people.3
  • 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.1
  • 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.4
  • Causes bloating – By slowing down the process of digestion, a person under a period of stress may also be prone to stomach bloating.1
  • Worsens digestive conditions – Strong emotions can worsen digestive conditions in susceptible people. For example, stress and anxiety are known to trigger attacks in those suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) by affecting the nerves of the bowel.5 Stress can also make existing gastrointestinal pain seem much worse.6
  • 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,7 thereby having a negative effect on general digestive health.
  • Instigates inflammation – Stress or other psychological conditions can cause inflammation of the digestive tract,6 which may lead to problems later on.

How to keep stress under control to aid digestion

To soothe a stressed out body or over‐excited mind, try the following:

  • Regular moderate exercise
  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, visualization or progressive muscle relaxation.
  • Tai chi
  • Gut‐directed hypnotherapy, which appears to have a positive effect in people with digestive conditions2
  • Take a time out
  • Talk to friends or family
  • Rest up and get a good night’s sleep

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