If you have ever experienced the feeling of a knot in your stomach or queasiness when undergoing a particularly upsetting or stressful time, you are already well aware that your mental state can have significant impact over your digestive health. This is managing stress and anxiety are imperative to not only mental health, but gut health as well.
How are the Brain and Gut Connected?
Increasingly, researchers are learning how intrinsically connected the brain and digestive system are. In fact, the gut houses its own network of neurons known as the enteric nervous system (ENS) or intrinsic nervous system. This system is made up of roughly 500 million neurons, five times as many as the spinal cord, and regulates functions such as swallowing and the release of enzymes. Typically, this system communicates with the central nervous system of the brain and spinal cord via the autonomic nervous system. However, it is also capable of operating autonomously if necessary.
Effects of Stress on the Digestive System
When we find ourselves in a particularly stressful situation, the body goes into its “fight or flight” response and releases the hormone cortisol. In the moments following, the digestive system may experience symptoms such as spasms of the esophagus, indigestion, nausea and diarrhea.
For those suffering from chronic bouts of stress, the damage to the digestive system can be even greater. It can lead to inflammation, cramping, and an imbalance of healthy gut bacteria. It can also exacerbate existing digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), peptic ulcers, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Minimizing the Impact of Stress on Gut Health
The first step for anyone experiencing stress and related gastrointestinal difficulties should be to find ways to reduce their overall level of stress. Among the most effective ways to accomplish this are exercising regularly, seeing a therapist, improving diet, and using calming techniques like meditation. Of course, if stress-induced digestive troubles have become an ongoing issue, a gastroenterologist should be consulted as well.