Upset Stomach? Your Anxiety Might Be Affecting Your Digestion

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Ever relied on your gut to make a decision? Or felt nauseous before a big presentation? Those are physical signs that your gut and brain are connected.

"There's mounting evidence that stress and anxiety impact gut function," says Eva Alsheik, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Henry Ford Health System. "Stress impacts our ability to control inflammation and that can increase stress on the gastrointestinal tract." Interestingly, gastrointestinal distress can also lead to anxiety.

The Gut-Brain Connection

For decades, scientists have known that anxiety contributes to gastrointestinal (GI) problems. Now they’re realizing that the relationship goes both ways.

It turns out that when you're suffering from GI upset, your body sends signals to the central nervous system that can cause mood changes. Just as an anxious mind can create butterflies in your stomach, a troubled tummy can signal the brain to go on high alert. So your stomach pain could be the cause or the effect of stress, anxiety and worry.

"It's not uncommon for people — especially children — to internalize their feelings," Dr. Alsheik explains. That stress affects the movement, function and sensation in the gastrointestinal tract.

The good news: Treating anxiety could have welcome side effects for your gut, and vice versa. In fact, studies show that treating anxiety can lead to improvements in digestion.

Treating An Anxious Gut

Our gastrointestinal tracts are remarkably tuned in to our emotions. So if you're experiencing ongoing belly pain coupled with increasing stress and anxiety, there are a number of things you can do for both body and mind to quiet troubling symptoms.

1. Clean up your diet: Consider replacing processed, high-sugar foods with whole foods like fruits, vegetables and grains. Foods that are rich in probiotics, prebiotics and fiber are especially good choices since they help replenish the good bacteria in the gut.

  • Probiotic foods include sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi, kombucha and Greek yogurt.
  • Prebiotic foods include jicama, asparagus, onions, garlic and leeks.
  • High-fiber foods include Brussels sprouts, apples, peas and leafy greens.

2. Practice mindfulness: Taking time out each day to focus on yourself and quiet your mind can have powerful stress-busting effects. When you're relaxed, your body is better equipped to digest.

3. Get moving: Exercise is a powerful prescription for both anxiety and gastrointestinal distress. It keeps blood flowing to all of your vital organs, including your brain and your gut. It also releases feel-good hormones that can help alleviate anxiety.

4. Get help: There are a number of medications doctors can use to treat both anxiety and GI distress. For the anxiety piece, working with a counselor or cognitive behavioral therapist can help you better manage uncomfortable emotions. There are even specialists called functional gastroenterologists who specialize in digestive disorders that may be related to stress and anxiety.

If you're experiencing anxiety or intestinal problems, such as heartburn, cramping or loose stools, don't suffer in silence. Your primary care provider can help you come up with strategies to calm your mind and your gut at the same time.

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To find a doctor at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

Dr. Eva Alsheik is a gastroenterologist who sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and at Henry Ford Medical Center - Columbus.

Categories: FeelWell