When something stressful happens, we can feel it – as the saying goes – in our gut.
And if you feel like stress is exacerbating the trouble you’re having with digestion, you’re on the right track. Science has found definite links between stress and digestive issues, validating that it plays a role in a range of problems, from heartburn to indigestion to irritable bowel syndrome.
“We all talk about ‘gut feelings,’ but few of us really appreciate the amazingly strong connections between the brain and the digestive system,” writes Christopher Woolston on HealthDay.
The “Mini Brain”
Woolston argues that our digestive system is a “mini brain,” as the stomach and intestines have more nerve cells than the spinal cord. Most of our body’s serotonin – the hormone that controls our mood – is found in the digestive system.
When the brain is stressed, it releases hormones that cause turmoil in our digestive systems. For example, corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) signals the adrenal glands to start making adrenaline and steroids that power our fight-or-flight responses to stressful situations.
But CRH can affect different people in different ways. Some of us may lose our appetite, while others feel the need to fight stress by eating.
Stress can have other effects. In the short term, it can cause nausea and diarrhea. At the same time, there is a definite link between stress and digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome.
Stress and Digestive Issues
Aside from IBS, here are some other digestive issues that can be exacerbated by stress:
Also known as “functional dyspepsia,” this is the most common gastrointestinal disorder after IBS. The symptoms of indigestion – vomiting, nausea, feeling bloated – tend to worsen when we’re stressed, and fade away when we relax.
As Woolston writes, a 2004 study in Psychosomatic Medicine found that heartburn sufferers who went through a life changing event – which tend to be stressful – were more likely to develop severe symptoms of the illness within four months.
If something is making us feel stressed, we might say “This is giving me an ulcer.” But ulcers are the result of a bacterial infection, not stress. Still, some experts believe stress can help infections take hold and make ulcers worse.
Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease
These conditions – otherwise known as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) – are not caused by stress, but stress can worsen their symptoms.
Stress and digestive issues are related, but there are ways you can alleviate stress in your life, and thus settle your stomach:
A regular workout – at least 30 minutes of exercise, three to five times a week – is a great way to relax your mind and body and improve your mood.
Relaxing your muscles
Stress makes us tense. Relief your tension by stretching, enjoying a long bath or shower, and getting a good night’s sleep.
A well-balanced diet can improve your mood. Try to eat meals with a lot of whole grains, vegetables and fruits, and lean proteins. And don’t skip meals, which can worsen your mood and make you feel more stressed.
Take a deep breath
Deep breathing exercises can go a long way toward reducing stress. Sit in a comfortable position (or lie down), close your eyes, and imagine yourself in a relaxing place. Take slow, deep breaths in and out for five to 10 minutes.
Indulge in your hobbies
Try to do something you enjoy each day, whether it’s reading, doing an art project, watching a movie, or play games.
Find someone to talk to
Talking about your problems – whether it’s with a doctor, a therapist, friends or family members – can help relieve stress.
Don’t be too hard on yourself
Remember that you can’t control everything in your life, nor can you do things perfectly.
If you still find stress and digestive issues working together to make your life unpleasant, Proper Nutrition can help.
Our whole-food supplements such as Seacure and Intestive are made from protein-rich white fish and contain bioactive peptides that work to combat the effects of IBS, IBD and other gut related problems.
Visit our product page to find a supplement that can help ease your digestive troubles, and hopefully lead to a less stressful life.