Why stress is bad for your digestion

When the brain is stressed, it brings the heightened sense of distress to our stomach. Photo / www.istockphoto.com

What you need to know:

  • Stress can cause a range of gastrointestinal problems including cramping, bloating, inflammation, and a loss of appetite. Find out how to keep stress levels down to protect your gut.

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 daily stresses that get our heart racing, our breath quickening, and our stomach churning. Of course, just having a digestive condition can be a source of anxiety in itself. Studies show that a major stressful event long-since passed could still be affecting your gut even now.

Stress is a feeling of emotional or physical tension. It is typically triggered by any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry or nervous. It represents the body’s response to various stimuli, and not simply limited to “too much thinking” as many may perceive it to be.

According to Dr Ephraim Manzi, a general physician at Jordan Medical Centre, Nabweeru, the digestive system allows the ingestion of food (through the mouth), its passage (oesophagus) temporary storage and digestion (stomach and pancreas), absorption (intestines) into the blood stream and metabolism (liver).

How the body reacts to stress

When one is stressed, the body switches on a part of the nervous system called the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and also releases a hormone called cortisol and its these two that mediate the stress response.

"The SNS produces a response we need when in danger referred to as the ‘fight or flight response while the hormone makes your brain more alert. Although this is the body’s way of protecting itself, it can also be very stressful,” says Dr Manzi.

“In a bid to protect itself, the body diverts blood from less important systems during danger for example (the digestive system) to more important system (such as heart, muscles). This reduced blood supply contributes to the negative impacts of stress on the digestive system such as cramping (stomach ache), inflammation, indigestion, bloating, heart burn, and worsens diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, peptic ulcer disease, gastro-esophageal reflux disease and irritable bowel syndrome,” he adds.

Stress also causes delayed stomach emptying, alters movement of food in the digestive system, and increases acid production of the food in the secretions which are important for digestion. Impaired motility may also result in diarrhoea or constipation.

Causes of stress

According to www.mind.org.uk, many things can cause stress. You might feel stressed because of one big event or situation in your life. Or it might be a build-up of lots of smaller things. This might make it harder for you to identify what is making you feel stressed, or to explain it to other people.

You may experience stress if you feel under a lot of pressure, face big changes in your life, are worried about something, do not have much or any control over the outcome of a situation, have responsibilities that you find overwhelming, do not have enough work, activities or change in your life, experience discrimination, hate or abuse and are going through a period of uncertainty.

Management of stress

According to Dr Patrick Ssenyonjo, a general physician, each person deals with stress differently so, finding ways to cope is as unique and varied as the people feeling it.

He, however, adds that prevention of these stress-related digestive system disorders involves proper management of stress. This entails different forms of medication, hypnosis, yoga, physical exercise, psychotherapy and support from friends and family. If you have failed to effectively manage stress, Dr Manzi recommends getting medical care.


According to badgut.org, stress can be controlled in the following ways:

Monitor negative thoughts to see how often you fret about things such as losing your job, or making mistakes. If you find yourself obsessing, try to substitute a negative thought with a positive, but realistic one. For example, instead of thinking, “I know something will go wrong during my presentation”, tell yourself, “No matter what happens, I can handle it.”

Get physical. Exercise is a well-known tension reducer and can help relieve symptoms. The paradox is that strenuous, high-impact exercises might induce GERD symptoms, so take care to increase exercise slowly and assess your body’s tolerance to this as you do.

Take time out for yourself. Our minds and bodies require a certain amount of variety, or else our overcharged nervous systems will keep speeding right into the next day. Try to take at least one day off each week to do something you really enjoy, whatever that may be. Remember to include things like getting enough sleep, exercising your faith, having a leisurely bath, listening to music, playing with a pet, having conversations with friends, or anything that gives you pleasure.

Have a good laugh. Laughter is a natural stress reliever that helps to lower blood pressure, slow your heart and breathing rate, and relax your muscles.

Choose foods carefully. Some foods can increase your stress level while others can help reduce it. Generally, fatty, sugary, and/or processed foods seem to increase stress in most people while lean meat, whole grains, and fresh fruits and vegetables seem to decrease stress.