Help Combat the Effects of Stress on Digestion
If you’ve ever felt queasy before an important meeting, had trouble eating before a big test, or reached for a comfort snack when you’re feeling anxious, then you’ve experienced the connection between stress and digestion. We tend to think of stress as an emotion – something that’s only experienced in our minds. In reality, our physical bodies carry the effects of stress just as much, and sometimes we feel the digestive repercussions before we’re even aware of our emotional state!
This connection between stress and gut health is part of what’s called the “gut-brain axis” – a constant feedback loop our bodies use to monitor digestive functions and link the emotional and cognitive centers of the brain with intestinal functions. The gut has the second highest concentration of nerves outside of the brain, so it makes sense that your digestion can be affected when you’re dealing with stress, especially if you have a sensitive stomach.
Here's what’s happening in your body when it’s stressed – and some tips for mitigating the effects in a healthy way.
What Happens to Your Body When it’s Stressed?
“Stress” typically has a negative connotation, but in the short term, stress is actually a very normal response to psychological stressors (like a work challenge) or physical stressors (like exposure to cold). These stressors trigger a chain of neurons that start releasing chemical and hormonal signals like adrenaline, cortisol, and epinephrine to dilate the pupils, increase heart rate, and “turn off” unnecessary functions.
Often called a “fight-or-flight” response, this process is meant to stimulate us to move and react – which is extremely important when there’s a situation that threatens our safety. In fact, short-term stress can actually activate the immune system, sharpen our focus, and improve physical and cognitive performance.
Occasional stress gives the body time to recover and come back to the normal “rest-and-digest” state. The problems arise when we experience stress long-term, or trigger that “fight-or-flight" response many times a day. When it comes to stress, our bodies, unfortunately, don’t know the difference between being chased by a bear and say, being stuck in a traffic jam when we’re running late. It all triggers a similar stress response.
When compounded over time, high stress can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, sleep problems, weight gain, and difficulty concentrating. A few ways to identify when you’ve entered a harmful state of stress include: prolonged sleep difficulties, panic attacks or chest pain, unexplained muscle or headaches, feeling sick or dizzy, changes to one's menstrual cycle, and digestive issues.
How Stress Affects Digestion
Stress can affect digestion in a wide variety of ways, from changes in appetite, to constipation and bloating, to diarrhea, heartburn, and nausea. While some of these seem like opposite reactions, they’re all caused by the same mechanisms in the body.
As mentioned previously, our body’s stress response involves deactivating certain functions to help the body focus its energy on solving the problem at hand. This includes suppressing digestion by slowing contractions of digestive muscles, decreasing secretions for digestion, and sending blood flow to other muscles of the body. All of this makes it easier to get away from danger…and much harder to digest and absorb food properly.
So when we’re feeling stressed, the rush of cortisol and adrenaline can make waste move too quickly through our digestive system, leading to diarrhea. As the stress progresses, our bodies shut down bowel movements. This can cause constipation, bloating, acid reflux, and nausea.
High stress over time can also change your gut microbiome, allowing more unhealthy bacteria to thrive and affect how you digest food.
7 Ways to Help Relieve Stress
There’s nothing worse than feeling stressed, experiencing digestive issues, worrying about your digestion, and then being told to “just calm down.” It’s nearly impossible to “think your way out of” feeling stressed when your mind is already dysregulated and anxious. That’s why many of the best ways to reduce stress utilize our body and not just our brain:
It sounds almost too simple, but one of the most effective, science-backed ways to reduce stress right in the moment is by focusing on your breath. When we’re relaxed, our breathing is slow and controlled, so mimicking that can signal relaxation to the brain.
To slow the heart rate, aim to make your exhales longer and more vigorous than your inhales. One way to practice this is the “physiological sigh” – two inhales through the nose, followed by an extended exhale through the mouth.
2. Move Your Body
Exercise doesn’t just increase your overall health and sense of well-being; it also has direct effects on stress response. Aerobic activity can help increase production of feel-good endorphins and lower symptoms of mild anxiety. Gentle to moderate exercise can reduce stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. By shifting your focus to the task at hand, exercise can also be meditative and bring you back into the present moment.
It’s important to note that high-intensity exercise can actually spike the stress hormone cortisol. If you’re not already stressed, this can increase your energy levels and help your body and its systems become more resilient to future stress, but you may want to keep the workout intensity in check if you’re already under a lot of stress.
3. Eat Nourishing Foods
If you experience digestive issues or IBS, it’s always smart to identify and limit your trigger foods. However, eating well in general can have a positive effect on mental health and help mitigate the negative effects of stress.
Focus on including a variety of colorful fruits and veggies, high-fiber plants, high-quality proteins, and omega-3 fatty acids in your daily diet. Dark berries and dark leafy greens are especially helpful as they’re full of antioxidants. These all promote brain health, gut health, and fight inflammation that can be caused by stress.
4. Get Quality Sleep
Ever notice how a few nights of poor sleep can make a minor inconvenience feel like a full-blown disaster? Picture this: You’re stressed, so you have a hard time sleeping. The next day, it’s difficult to regulate your emotions, so you snap at your partner. You have a hard time focusing at work, which affects your job performance. The effects of your lack of sleep can lead to stressful situations, causing a vicious cycle.
Sleep is when the brain recharges and our bodies reset. A good bedtime routine improves concentration, regulates mood, and sharpens our decision making. Prioritizing sleep and creating a peaceful bedtime routine can be integral in relieving stress.
5. Increase Stress Threshold
While it may sound counterintuitive, stimulating a certain level of stress can actually help your body learn to cope with moderate stress more effectively. By raising your capacity to be mentally calm when the body is activated, you can make what once felt like a lot of stress feel more manageable.
Some examples of this are short bursts of high-intensity exercise or a cold shower/cold plunge. The key is to deliberately activate the body’s stress response and then relax the mind to dissociate the physical response.
6. Nurture Social Connections
Spending time with friends, family, coworkers, and even pets can have a major impact on long-term stress by leveraging the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin. When we’re lonely and socially disconnected, the body secretes higher levels of the neuropeptide tachykinin which can increase irritability, fear, and paranoia.
From a biological perspective, this makes sense – we’ve evolved to rely on community for survival, so isolation feels stressful. On the other hand, social connection helps us feel understood and safe, and it tends to go hand in hand with fun, laughter, shared hobbies, and opportunities to support others. All of these are amazing stress buffers when life is overwhelming.
7. Find a Healthy Release
Sometimes certain stressors – navigating serious illness, moving to a new place, experiencing layoffs at work -- simply can’t be avoided. When you’ve already managed what’s in your control and still feel stressed, it’s helpful to find an outlet for your emotions.
This will look different for everyone depending on your interests and season of life. Journaling or talking to a counselor are healthy ways to get pent-up feelings out of your head and into the open. In one recent study, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (a form of meditation) was found to be as effective as first-line medications for certain anxiety disorders. Hobbies like playing or listening to music, art, gardening, DIY projects, reading, dancing, puzzles, or baking can be helpful distractions to get your body out of “fight-or-flight" mode and into a more creative, relaxed state.
Next time you experience digestive issues, check in with your stress levels, along with your food habits. It might be a sign to take a step back and evaluate what’s going on in your life and mental state. Stress and digestion can go hand-in-hand, but armed with this knowledge, you’ll be better prepared to bring your body out of “fight-or-flight,” back into “rest-and-digest.”