How Stress Impacts Your Digestive Health

Your brain reacts to stress in the same way it reacts to physical danger.

Woman Doing Yoga
Woman Doing Yoga

Even though we may not realize it, most of us are familiar with the ways emotional stress can wreak havoc on our digestive systems, from that punch-in-the-gut feeling that comes with terrible news to the butterflies you feel in your stomach before an interview. The condition of one's gastrointestinal tract—and therefore digestive health—can often be traced to a person's state of mind.

Which raises an interesting question: How does stress affect our digestive health? What creates this connection between our emotional health (and the stress we may feel) and our digestive health? And is there anything we can do to minimize stress or otherwise reduce its impact on our stomachs?

The Mind-Body Connection

To understand the link between stress and digestive health, it helps to understand how stress affects the body.1 The brain responds to so-called "stressful" situations just like it does to threatening ones. If someone close to you dies, or you lose your job, or you feel like you're under an enormous amount of pressure, your brain will release the same set of nerve signals it would if you were in physical danger.

In a life-or-death scenario (or even just a plain scary one), these signals will cause your pulse to race and your muscles to tense and you'll get a sudden burst of energy to ensure your survival. But when the situation happens to be more stressful than dangerous, these same signals can interfere with the normal functioning or your gastrointestinal tract.

Stress and Anxiety: There’s a Difference

It's important to understand that there's a difference between stress and anxiety.2 Stress generally refers to the everyday pressures in life we experience. External circumstances that upset us—like unpaid bills and strained relationships—can put pressure on our mind and body to the point that our health can be affected. Some stressful experiences can actually be positive, like the rush of making a deadline or speaking in front of a crowd. But when these experiences pass and the unease remains, the stress turns into anxiety.

Stress and anxiety have been linked to gastrointestinal distress, and the relationship can be complicated.3 Not only can stress cause gastrointestinal disorders, but persistent problems with your gut can compound your stress. This takes extra effort to treat, and research suggests that options like cognitive behavior therapy paired with relaxation techniques can help alleviate the stress that can impact your digestive health.

Coping With Stress

Stress can be a major driver of digestive health issues. So what can you do to reduce the stress in your life, and to cope with the stressors you can't avoid?

Here are a few suggestions:

1. Avoid drugs and alcohol.

While they might seem to relieve stress, they really just mask the underlying problem.

2. Seek support.

Companionship is key during stressful times. Talk to family members and friends about the things that bother you, or seek help from a professional counselor or others in your community.

3. Exercise.

Regular exercise is great not only for your body, but also your mind. Even better: Do it outside in the fresh air and sunshine. You can also try proven stress-reducing activities like yoga, tai chi, or meditation.

4. Focus on your diet.

Eating a well-balanced diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables. Protein—as well as plenty of fiber—will give your body the energy it needs during stressful times.

While it's impossible to avoid stress altogether, it is possible to help prevent it from taking over your life. Focus on those things that you can control to help keep stress levels in check.

Show ReferencesHide References

  1. "5 Things You Should Know About Stress." National Institute of Mental Health. National Institutes of Health, n.d. Web.
  2. A"Stress and Your Health." MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. Ed. Linda J. Vorvick, David Zieve, and Brenda Conaway. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 3 Nov. 2016. Web.
  3. "Stress and the Sensitive Gut." Harvard Health Publications. Harvard Medical School, Aug. 2010. Web.

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