Stress & Your Stomach

A Gut Feeling

Unreasonable deadlines. Being stuck in traffic. Having too much to do and not enough time to do it in. Most of us are familiar with these kinds of daily stresses that get our heart racing and our stomach churning. But what are the real effects of stress on our gut? Many studies show that stressful life events are associated with the onset or worsening of symptoms in several digestive conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and peptic ulcer disease.

According to local gastroenterologist, Dr. Joshua Anderson, MD, GI, TPMG at Kaiser Permanente Central Valley Service Area, most of his patients he sees commonly have some degree of stomach issues. “The most typical signs are dyspepsia (epigastric pain with eating), anorexia (lack of desire to eat), abdominal cramps, bloating, nausea, occasionally vomiting, diarrhea, and/or constipation.”

In fact, a major stressful event long-since passed could still be affecting your gut even now. Dr. Anderson explains that there is a complex relationship between emotional stress and the human gut. “Our gut is controlled by a complicated system of hormones and the enteric nervous system. This is an autonomic process that we have little voluntary control over and serves as a gut brain.” The gut’s typical function is to keep the process of digestion moving in the correct direction so that important steps in the process occur at the right time in the right place. The system is connected to deep parts of our brain through parasympathetic nerve fibers which tell the gut to “rest and digest,” and through sympathetic nerve fibers which are part of our fight or flight response. When we are nervous, anxious, scared, or depressed our fight or flight instincts are activated and that has consequences for digestion. Obviously it is impossible to get rid of stress completely, but Dr. Anderson suggests, “The more we can do for ourselves and our loved ones to relieve the burden of stress in our lives, the better off we will be.”

Remedies for Relief suggested By Dr. Anderson:

  • Having a good social support group is key to dealing with stress. There are virtual support groups available to help during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Mindfulness and meditation can also be beneficial. There are a lot of mental health and emotional wellness apps available for free.
  • Exercise can help alleviate stress, and aid in digestion.
  • For those with food triggers, keeping a food/symptom diary can improve symptoms.
  • For bloating and/or IBS symptoms, avoid chewing gum and carbonated beverages.

Kaiser Permanente Central Valley