How Stress Affects Digestion—And What You Can Do About It

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We’ve all experienced that feeling when we’re nervous: an upcoming presentation or first-date jitters gives us butterflies in our stomach. Those “butterflies” show that our brain and digestive system are directly related. When we’re stressed, our stomach is affected too. 

“The gut is often referred to as the second brain because it has a nervous system with more neurotransmitters than the brain’s central nervous system,” says Tracey Torosian, Ph. D., a health psychologist who specializes in gastrointestinal health with Henry Ford Health System.

When we’re stressed, our brain activates the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is our flight-or-fight response: it prepares the body to protect itself against imminent danger by conserving functions that aren’t immediately needed for survival. That includes digestion. The emptying of the stomach is delayed, which can lead to a stomachache, indigestion, heartburn and nausea.”

As the stomach is slowing down, stress causes increased motor function in the large intestine. So at the same time that you’re stressed, you might experience bowel urgency or diarrhea.

The Effect Of Chronic Stress On The Digestive System

Unfortunately, this can become a vicious cycle: experiencing these digestive symptoms can make you even more stressed. And repeated stress can lead to gastrointestinal issues—or exacerbate issues that are already there.

“It’s important to note that stress doesn’t cause underlying diseases like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), but it can intensify symptoms,” says Dr. Torosian. “But a history of stress and trauma may contribute to some gastrointestinal conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). People can feel horrible, but their gastrointestinal workup looks normal—there are no tangible findings as to what is causing their stomach issues.” 

Tips To Alleviating Stress And Calming Your Stomach

Whether you have a diagnosed condition or you’re experiencing digestive issues with no known cause, using coping tactics can help alleviate stress and calm your stomach.

“To have a positive impact on digestive symptoms, we want to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the body and brain’s rest and digest response—it basically undoes what the sympathetic nervous system does,” says Dr. Torosian. “When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, your body becomes calm, your heart rate goes down, and your gastrointestinal system functions as it should.”

Here, she shares ways to activate the parasympathetic nervous system.

  1. Make time for relaxing activities. “What each person finds relaxing is up to them,” says Dr. Torosian. “One person might want to relax by reading a good book, another person might want to do something active, such as hiking. Find what helps you manage stress and work it into your routine. It helps to create a buffer from stress, both preventatively and in times of stress.”
  2. Check in with yourself. When you’re feeling upset, stop and think: are the thoughts I’m having helping or harming me? “We can all get into patterns of responding in ways that contribute to stress,” says Dr. Torosian. “The way you think about something has a big impact on how you feel about it. For example, you can’t control the fact that you have IBD, but you can control the thoughts you have about your illness. Identifying and changing stress-provoking thoughts can help manage gastrointestinal symptoms.”
  3. Know when you need support. Sometimes you can’t do it on your own, no matter how much you talk yourself up. “Knowing when to reach out to friends and family for support is a huge coping skill,” says Dr. Torosian. “That is really important. Sometimes, the times you want to be alone are the times you’ll most benefit from confiding in a friend.”
  4. Practice self-compassion. Talk to yourself the way you talk to loved ones. “We are often more critical of ourselves than we ever would be to our friends and family,” says Dr. Torosian. “Remember to be kind and non-judgmental toward yourself.”

All of these tactics might not work all of the time, which is why it’s a good idea to have a few coping skills in your back pocket to choose from.

“The main thing is to be aware of your thoughts and how you are feeling,” says Dr. Torosian. “Know yourself, know what coping mechanisms work for you, know what your pitfalls are, and keep that repertoire of coping skills handy. If one doesn’t work, try another. You want to be able to say, ‘yes I’m upset, but I can get through this.’ We want people to be empowered, to go forth in life and know how to get through rough times.”

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To find a gastroenterologist or a psychologist who specializes in gastrointestinal health and illness, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-436-7936.

Tracey Torosian, Ph. D., is a health psychologist who specializes in gastrointestinal health and illness. She sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and Henry Ford Medical Center—Columbus in Novi.

Categories: FeelWell