Stress is something we all deal with, but when we're chronically in a state of stress, our body — and especially our gut health — can feel the effects. The good news is that you can reduce the effects of stress on your gut.
How Does Stress Affect the Gut?
First, let's break down how stress can affect your gastrointestinal system. According to the American Psychological Association (APA) stress can affect different areas of the digestive system in different ways:
The APA notes that stress may lead you to eat different foods, eat more or less than normal and may increase alcohol consumption and the use of nicotine.
Changes in dietary habits and lifestyle choices (like alcohol and cigarettes) may result in acid reflux or heartburn. Stress may make swallowing foods more difficult, too, and in rare cases, stress can cause spasms in the esophagus which can be confused with symptoms of a heart attack.
When it comes to the stomach, the APA says stress can make stomach pain, bloating and nausea more easily felt. Stress can also have an impact on hunger cues by decreasing or increasing appetite.
While you may have heard that stress can lead to stomach ulcers, stress itself does not increase stomach acid production. These ulcers are a result of a bacterial infection that is unrelated to stress levels. People with ulcers may be more susceptible to feeling increased pain when stressed, though.
Stress can affect digestion and nutrient absorption, per the APA. When stress is present, the transit time (the time it takes food to move through the digestive tract) can be altered. This means food can move slowly, causing bloating and cramping, or it can move through much faster, resulting in diarrhea.
When it comes to absorbing the nutrients from your food, stress can affect the intestinal barrier (aka the gut lining). Normally this barrier is strong, but in stressed conditions, the intestinal barrier can weaken, allowing bacteria to slip through. Those with chronic bowel conditions like inflammatory bowel disease or irritable bowel syndrome need to be especially careful about stress levels.
How to Reduce the Effects of Stress on Your Gut
A 2015 study in Internal Medicine interviewed 12,653 people with GERD and found that almost half reported stress as the largest factor that worsened their symptoms, even when they were prescribed medication.
While doing things like avoiding certain foods, eating smaller and more frequent meals (instead of one big large one) and sitting or standing instead of lying down after eating can help with symptoms, finding ways to reduce stress before symptoms occur is important.
Mindfulness meditation may be helpful to mitigate the effects of stress. In fact, a March 2019 study in the Indian Journal of Gastroenterology showed that using mindfulness meditation improved the health-related quality of life in 60 patients with GERD. Meditation may be a useful tool in reducing stress effects on esophageal conditions like GERD or acid reflux.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America provides the following five tips for reducing stress and anxiety to alleviate gut symptoms:
1. Take Short Breaks to Breathe
Try aiming for at least one minute of slow and quiet deep breathing every couple of hours throughout the day. Try one of these six breathing exercises that can help reduce stress.
2. Say 'No'
When your capacity for additional tasks or activities has been exhausted, don't take on any more obligations. Committing to more than you can handle is a surefire way to pile on the stress.
Make time in your schedule to regularly work out or do yoga. As little as 15 minutes a day can be beneficial for stress reduction.
Keep in mind that the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans suggest adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each week, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity.
4. Focus on Your Locus of Control
Worrying about things we can't control increases stress and anxiety. Instead, it's best to focus our energy on things we can control.
5. Listen to Guided Relaxation Exercises Daily
Taking even five or 10 minutes out of your day to meditate could help bring down your stress levels. In fact, research shows that regular meditation may be more effective at shrinking stress than taking a vacation, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
If you're new to the practice, try a meditation app to guide you through it.
Is This an Emergency?
- American Psychological Association: "Stress Effects on the Body"
- Internal Medicine: "Lifestyle Factors and Efficacy of Lifestyle Interventions in Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease Patients with Functional Dyspepsia: Primary Care Perspectives from the LEGEND Study"
- Indian Journal of Gastroenterology: "The effectiveness of mindfulness meditation in relief of symptoms of depression and quality of life in patients with gastroesophageal reflux disease"
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America: "How to Calm an Anxious Stomach: The Brain-Gut Connection"
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd Edition"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Regular meditation more beneficial than vacation"