Digestive problems affect millions of Americans every year and have been increasing over the last few years.
There are many factors that can cause digestive diseases. One of those potential causes has also been steadily rising: stress levels. In fact, did you know that the physical effects of stress affect every part of the GI tract?
The link between your brain and your gut
Have you ever heard of your gut being called your “second brain?” That’s how strong the relationship between your nervous and GI systems is.
Stress and digestion aren’t a great combination. In the short term, stress can delay the emptying of your stomach. This leads to stomach aches, indigestion and nausea. Stress can also lead to decreased appetite and could cause diarrhea. The long-term effects of stress on the digestive system can make GI conditions worse.
Stress and bowel problems
Stress can take a toll on your mental and physical health. How much the physical effects of stress impact you depends on a variety of factors. Most notably, the length of time you experience stress.
Short term, you may notice minor discomfort or loss of appetite. Long term, you may experience indigestion, nausea or diarrhea. Chronic stress can wreak havoc on your gut, causing or exacerbating disorders like irritable bowel syndrome.
If you’re constantly under stress, your body is under pressure for a long time. Causes range from dealing with relationship problems to high-pressure jobs and money problems, to name a few.
Chronic stress symptoms include:
- Appetite changes
- Changes in sexual desire
- Disorganized thoughts
- Feeling like you’ve lost control
- Getting sick frequently
- GI problems
- Irritability and helplessness
- Low self-esteem
- Trouble concentrating
- Trouble sleeping
How does stress affect digestion
The link between stress and bowel problems is complex. There’s a strong link between your gut and your brain. Your central nervous system plays a major role in controlling your GI system. You have an entire network of neurons, known as the intrinsic or enteric nervous system, located in the lining of your GI system. It regulates important processes like the release of digestive enzymes and swallowing.
When you’re stressed, your body releases cortisol. This is commonly called the stress hormone. It gets your body ready for whatever threat it’s facing by raising your heart rate and breathing rate. Your blood pressure rises and muscle tension increases. At the same time, stress can affect your digestive system in several ways, including:
- Causing spasms in the esophagus
- Increasing motor action in the large intestine
- Increasing stomach acid
- Slowing digestion
Research also shows that there’s a link between stress and intestinal inflammation. Stress disturbs the balance of your gut’s microbiome. It can also trigger dysfunction in your immune system, leading to inflammation in the intestines.
Improve digestive health by reducing stress
Over time, stress and stomach problems worsen. One of the best ways to calm your digestive system is to manage your stress levels. Tips for reducing stress include:
- Making time to relax: Set aside a little time every day for relaxing activities. This can help give you a buffer from the effects of stress and calm your body.
- Getting regular exercise: Physical activity is a great way to relieve tension. Even better, it stimulates your brain to release “feel-good” chemicals that can relieve stress and improve sleep.
- Practicing mindful meditation: Research suggests that developing an increased awareness can help relieve stress and calm your GI system. The deep breathing of mindful meditation can lower inflammation and soothe your stressed digestive system. Try two to four rounds of the four-four-four method of breathing in for four, holding your breath for four seconds and exhaling slowly for four.
- Eating stress-relieving foods: Some foods reduce anxiety and stress. For example, the omega-3 fatty acids in salmon boost mood. Magnesium in almonds can manage stress hormone levels.
- Trying relaxation therapy: There are a variety of techniques that help people reduce their reactions to stress. Some to consider include visualization and progressive muscle relaxation.
If you’ve tried some of these stress-relieving tips and you’re still struggling, you may benefit from seeing a professional. Therapy may help give you the coping skills you need to reduce anxiety and stress. There’s no shame in asking for help when you need it.