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4 ways that stress can affect digestion

Chronic, long-term stress can have a major impact on your health, especially digestion with studies showing increased levels of stress hormones in people with IBS. Could stress be the trigger for your digestive symptoms, do stressful situations make them worse? Stress and emotions play a major role in many digestive problems and it’s often one of the first places where our bodies show that we aren’t well with symptoms of bloating, acid reflux, indigestion, abdominal pain, constipation and diarrhoea. 

Here’s four ways that stress can affect our gut…

1) Compromised Digestion

Stress switches off digestion because when we are in survival or fight or flight mode (triggered by any stress or worry in our lives) our bodies need to focus resources in the areas which will help us deal with the stressor and digesting food isn’t one of them.  After we have eaten, our food can end up just sitting in our stomach, not getting broken down, leading us to feel full and causing uncomfortable symptoms like bloating, nausea, indigestion and acid reflux. This stress response also reduces the production of stomach acid and vital enzymes, both of these are needed to break food down. If we aren't digesting our food properly then we won’t be absorbing the nutrients effectively further downstream in the small intestine.  This can lead to nutrient deficiencies which doesn’t support energy, mood or optimal health. 

2) Messes with Motility

Stress will impact our gut motility, the rate at which food moves through our digestive tract. This can mean constipation or diarrhoea (or even a combination of both). As part of the stress response our adrenals release a hormone called adrenalin which diverts blood flow away from the gut towards the vital organs like the lungs, heart and brain.  This means that intestinal movement in the stomach and small intestine slows down and we become constipated. This can lead to an increase in toxins, which are excreted via stool abut held in by the body for longer and can get recirculated again.  This can impact our energy, mood and can increase our toxic load.  We can also get stress related diarrhoea which can occur during the stress response or when we are anxious.  In this case, the colon speed ups and food moves too quickly through the system.  Whichever it is, it can hugely impact people’s quality of life and be a cause of stress in itself.

3) Weakens the gut lining

Stress can impair the gut lining which is an important aspect of our bodies defence and immune system. This essential barrier of mucus and cells keeps out harmful bacteria and viruses. A weakened gut lining is known as intestinal permeability as it allows a flood of substances to move into the blood stream that shouldn’t be there, including large undigested food particles, toxins and pathogens.  These create an inflammatory response as they make the immune system react which long term can have a negative impact on our health and can further drive other inflammatory conditions.   Some clinical signs of a ‘leaky gut’ include: bloating, abdominal pain, gas, indigestion, constipation, diarrhoea, brain fog, food sensitivities, skin issues, low mood, anxiety, low energy and an increase in infections.

4) Unbalances our microbiome

Studies have shown that even short-term stress can alter our gut bacteria which are essential for not just our gut health but also our overall health.   Our gut microbiome plays a huge role on our immune system, helps us detoxify, regulates our mood and can also make important micronutrients.   Fewer good guys also result in the increase of the less desirable ones which not only cause gut symptoms but can lead to a variety of health issues.  Research has also shown that our microbiome plays an important role in our mood through the gut brain axis, so it is common for people who suffer with gut symptoms to also have issues with low mood, anxiety and brain fog.

As a nutritional therapist I specialise in supporting people with their gut health and I commonly find in my practice that a lot of gut symptoms are linked to stress. I also find that stress related gut issues are not always shown through the usual gut symptoms but instead experience fatigue, anxiety, hormonal issues and skin conditions.   If you would like to find out how I could support you with stress, gut issues or mental well-being I offer a complimentary consultation to discuss my nutrition coaching approach in more detail and how I could support you.   Feel free to get in touch and send me an e mail.


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