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Here, we'll take a closer look at what stress can do to your gut, and what you can do to try to alleviate the symptoms.
If you've ever felt nauseous or anxious while stressed, this may well have been a result of your gut. Our guts are intricately linked to other systems within our bodies, including the brain, and so when you're feeling stressed, your gut is told, and it responds in a variety of ways.1 One way, according to a number of studies, is through decreasing gastric motility, or the rate of your stomach emptying, which can, in turn, leave you feeling sick and anxious.2 But at the same time, stress can increase the contractions lower down in the gut, whilst also increasing fluid secretion, which can result in diarrhoea and/or the feeling of needing to urinate more often.3
What's worse, stress can also increase intestinal sensitivity, which lowers the threshold at which we feel discomfort.4 For instance, analysis of the pH (acidity level) in the oesophagus, or food pipe, indicates that the amount of acid reflux doesn't increase during stress, but the probability of experiencing the feeling of reflux as heartburn does increase.
Many of the effects of stress on the gut are thought to be brought about by a hormone called corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF), which is released from nerve cells in the hypothalamus of the brain. CRF stimulates the gut directly via two types of receptors in the gut wall. CRF-1 receptors stimulate colonic contractions, while CRF-2 receptors reduce upper gut activity. One theory is that this dual effect preps the body to eliminate toxins through vomiting and diarrhoea should it be necessary.5
Alongside the above side-effects, stress can also help to contribute to several gut conditions, including:
While keeping stress under control is by no means an easy task, there are a number of steps you can take to help keep it at bay, including:
There's anecdotal evidence that a diet high in sugar and fat, and lower in vitamins and minerals, can make you feel more stressed, whilst eating a higher nutrient, more wholesome diet could help to ease the impact of stress. It's important therefore to make sure your diet is well-rounded and healthy, not just to help your stress, but also for your overall health. The ideal diet is high in fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, nuts, pulses and legumes and low in refined sugar, saturated fat and processed foods.
Stress can have a big effect on your gut: from IBS to feeling nauseated, it can bring a lot of discomfort. It's important therefore to try to reduce stress, whether this is by upping your exercise, eliminating things that might induce stress, and adopting a healthy and varied diet. Ultimately, though, make sure to contact your local GP if you're feeling negative side effects of stress.
If you'd like to read more about the benefits of keeping a healthy gut, as well as find more information on how you can promote good gut health, select Digestion from the Your health menu above.
Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn't possible, supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.
1Foster, J. A., Rinaman, L., and Cryan, J. F. (2017). Stress & the gut-brain axis: Regulation by the microbiome. Neurobiology of Stress, 07.
2Huerta-Franco, M. R. (2012). Effect of psychological stress on gastric motility assessed by electrical bio-impedance. World Journal of Gastroenterology, 18(36)
3Mayer, E. A. (2000). The neurobiology of stress and gastrointestinal disease. Gut, 47(06). [Online].
4Mertz, H. (2017). Stress and the Gut. UNC Center for Functional GI and Motility Disorders.
5Mertz, H. (2017). Stress and the Gut. UNC Center for Functional GI and Motility Disorders.
6Mawdsley, J. E., and Rampton, D. S. (2005). Psychological stress in IBD: new insights into pathogenic and therapeutic implications. Gut, 54(10).
7 Spence, M. J., and Moss-Morris, R. (2007). The cognitive behavioural model of irritable bowel syndrome: a prospective investigation of patients with gastroenteritis. Gut, 56(08).
8Mayer, E. A. (2000). The neurobiology of stress and gastrointestinal disease. Gut, 47(06).
9Strean, W. B. (2009). Laughter prescription. Canadian Family Physician, 55(10).