Stress and Your Digestive Health — What You Need to Know

Stress is a part of everyday life. Driving through rush hour traffic, tight deadlines at work, even cleaning the house can all contribute to daily stress. While we expect to experience certain regular stressors, too much stress can have serious consequences for your health — especially your digestive health.

What Happens to Our Bodies When We’re Stressed

When we’re stressed, our central nervous system — the collection of neurons and neural pathways that control our bodies — releases hormones (cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline) to help us cope with stressors. The release of these hormones triggers our “fight or flight” response — a mechanism that was entirely useful for our primitive ancestors to help them defend against life-threatening dangers, like angry mammoths. Though we are less likely to encounter actual life-threatening situations in our modern world, our bodies still respond to stress as if it were a sabertooth tiger ready to pounce.

The influx of stress hormones, especially when experienced with any kind of regularity, causes a great deal of harm to our bodies. Fatigue, irritability, depression, heart problems, and digestive issues are all side effects of too much stress. Chronic stress can disrupt our emotional lives, our social lives, and have far-reaching consequences on health — including contributing to the development of heart disease, and exacerbation of certain gastrointestinal maladies.

Your Brain and Gut Are More Linked than You Might Know

You have probably experienced “butterflies” in your stomach, indigestion, or an urgent need to use the bathroom when nervous or worried. When we are in fight or flight mode, our digestion slows down so that our bodies can divert energy into responding to the threat. While you might think your reaction is all in your head, you’re only partially right. Our digestive tracts are actually controlled by their own set of neurotransmitters, called the enteric nervous system, which many scientists consider to be the body’s “second brain”.

While our second brain doesn’t actively think, the neural pathways that line our entire digestive tracts do have a large influence on our overall health — including emotional wellbeing. The gastrointestinal neurotransmitters can influence our brains, too. In fact, poor gut health can actually increase your stress levels.

Stress Reduction Techniques to Improve Gastrointestinal Health

There are several things that you can do to minimize the impact that stress has on your body. For chronic stressors that cause anxiety or depression, cognitive-behavioral therapy might be a good solution. In addition to therapy, try these techniques to reduce your stress:

    • Regular exercise. Exercise releases endorphins, which help improve sleep and reduce stress. Try low-impact exercise like walking or swimming, or even moderate weight training.
    • Yoga. Not only is yoga a great exercise option, but focusing on the breath provides a sort of moving meditation that can relax the mind and body. If yoga isn’t your thing, a regular meditation practice can improve your mood.
    • Choose the right foods. Stress hormones increase our appetites — and not for the good foods. Choosing a diet rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, and probiotics can improve heart and digestive health.
    • Take time for self-care. If your schedule is action-packed, it may be time to dial back commitments and obligations to take care of your needs. Cut back where you can and take time out for you.
Now is a good time to start taking care of yourself. Dr. Absi is a digestive health specialist and is offering free consultations for anyone experiencing stress-related issues.