How stress affects your stomach and causes symptoms such as IBS, bloating and diarrhoea
Updated: Jun 18
Does stress affect your stomach?
We all know that short-term emotions like fear, anxiety, anticipation, and even excitement can go ‘straight to your stomach’ and that your stomach can have a range of responses.
Reactions range from the mildest ‘butterflies’, or ‘wobbly tummy’, to pain and even vomiting at the more severe end of the spectrum.
We understand that the brain sends signals to the stomach, causing ‘gut feelings’, but scientists are now learning that the gut also sends signals back to the brain via a diverse system of nerves and chemical messengers.
In fact, your digestive system and your brain are in a constant feedback loop known as ‘the gut/brain axis’ and this is key to understanding how stress affects your stomach.
Why does stress affect your stomach?
One of the most important subjects that the brain and the gut like to discuss is stress.
When the brain encounters stress – such as a work deadline, or an argument that spurs a fight-or-flight response – it interprets it as an emergency.
When an emergency occurs, the brain borrows energy from the gut to deal with the situation (eg to run away) and the gut obliges by saving energy. It reduces digestion, stops making necessary mucus, and reduces its blood supply.
In a real emergency this can be a life-saver. The problem is that the stress that we encounter in the modern world often lasts for much, much longer than the stress that our ancestors faced.
While they might have spent 15 minutes running for their lives once a week, we now endure chronic stress every day. For example:
emails and social media that never stop
pressures around our appearance and our relationships
long working hours with deadlines and constant demands
long-term health issues
a world that faces a seemingly unending chain of crises to worry about
Stress is everywhere!
How does the gut/brain axis cause gastric problems?
The brain is our diligent helper and offers this ‘help’ in solving the long-term crisis of modern stress by bullying our guts into giving up energy.
Unfortunately for us this system was never designed for long-term use, and this ends up affecting our gut health in two damaging ways:
Gut function starts to falter and suffer. The gut walls can become weakened. Immune cells in the gut become more reactive to stress, and the climate in the gut changes for the worse. This allows ‘bad’ bacteria to proliferate, leaving less room for ‘good’ bacteria. Gastric problems soon follow.
The gut decides that it has had enough and sends emphatic signals to the brain to this effect via unpleasant stomach effects, which can include:
loss of appetite
diarrhoea and/or constipation
Sadly the stress of modern living just keeps coming, and although the brain and the gut are doing their best to protect us, their interaction can become a vicious circle – with digestive issues as a result.
Now we know that the stress feedback from the brain to the gut and back has a direct impact on our stomach health, what can we do about it?
Managing stress to help your stomach
The good news is that managing stress levels can improve your stomach symptoms.
Reducing stress stops the brain from sending emergency demands to the gut, and therefore stops the gut from suffering and increasing symptoms to alert the brain that it has had enough.
Stress reduction techniques are experiential – you actually have to take time out to do and experience them. It’s not useful to just tell yourself ‘I must relax’ or ‘I should stop getting so stressed’ because this actually serves to increase stress levels.
Even a practical five-minute stress reduction technique can be massively helpful if undertaken every day, because over time small habits bring big results.
In another blog I explore various experiential stress reduction techniques that you can use to start relaxing and soothing your gut problems. There are so many other benefits to be had from stress management, including better sleep, less fatigue, increased libido, and the prevention of a raft of serious illnesses.
If you are stressed, managing that burden will improve every aspect of your health.
In my practice I use a range of natural solutions to ease stress and its attendant symptoms and I offer a 30-minute discovery call to discuss my approach with homeopathy.
If you’d like to start a conversation, do contact me at the bottom of this page by emailing with any questions or booking a call.
Further reading on gut health:
Two books I couldn’t be without illuminate the amazing function of the gut and the incredible emerging world of the microbiome. GUT gives you the lowdown on how your digestive system works, while Dr Michael Mosley’s book gives you a diet plan on how to restore optimal gut health.
Dr Michael Mosley