How Does Stress Impact Gut Health?
If you have ever had butterflies in your stomach, found that your morning coffee didn't exactly agree with you before a big presentation, or felt nauseated after getting bad news, then you're well-acquainted with how stress can impact your gut. "Some people, more than others, feel stress in their gut," says Dr. Nitin Ahuja, a gastroenterologist with Penn Medicine. And while temporary stressors—job interviews, softball team championships, dropping your daughter at college—may make you feel bad in the short term, constant stress at work or at home can also play a role in chronic gastrointestinal conditions.
Ahead, how to know if your worries are to blame, and how to manage the stomach discomfort they may cause.
Though your gut works autonomously—meaning it's one of the systems in your body that works without you having to think about it, like breathing—it is connected to your brain, which means changes in brain chemistry can also influence your gut. "Some people talk about the gut as 'the second brain,' or 'the little brain,'" says Dr. Ahuja. One evolutionary benefit of the brain-gut connection: Your brain can divert blood from the gut when employing a fight-or-flight response to focus all your body's resources on getting out of a stressful situation. (Your first day at a new job doesn't require a fight-or-flight response, of course, but your brain is still overriding your gut's innate processes to keep you alert and safe.)
Stress and GI Diseases
Chronic GI issues, like irritable bowel syndrome, aren't caused by stress, says Dr. Ahuja, but can be affected by it. "You can have a diagnosis that bothers you at all times, stressful or not, but stress makes it worse," he says. "Stress can be an exacerbating factor regardless of what the underlying diagnosis is." He frequently asks his patients whether their symptoms are worse during the workweek and better on the weekend—one way to dissect whether stress is playing a role in frequent GI discomfort.
How to Feel Better
If you can identify the relationship between your worries and regular GI distress, then Dr. Ahuja recommends common stress-relief techniques, like meditation, yoga, or other holistic techniques, as a starting point—though completely eliminating stress is generally impossible. "It's easier said than done," he says. "Stress is a big part of a lot of people's lives." Seeing a GI doctor for a complete workup and diagnosis can expand your options, which might include doctor-approved diets—they may help relieve certain symptoms—or suggestions for prescription medications.