Why Stress Is Digestion's Biggest Enemy

Written by Dr. Jatin Bhide on Wed, 16 November 2022

Key Highlights

  • The gut is often called the second brain of our body.
  • Stress causes oxygen flow to the stomach to decrease and may cause the knotted feeling in the gut.
  • Common digestion-related effects due to stress include dry mouth and throat, nausea, constipation, sudden diarrhea, acidity, loss of appetite and stomach ache.
  • Exercise, eating stress-busting foods, meditation, and adopting healthy habits such as quitting smoking can go a long way in reducing stress and improving digestion.

A business manager who works 80 hours a week. A college student buried in assignments. A nurse working 12-hour shifts non-stop. What's the one thing common amongst this diverse group of people? You guessed it right, it's stress.

No matter what your profession or your age is, stress has now become a part of our lives. Some handle it well, while others are constantly wrestling with overwhelming pressure. But do you know what comes with stress? Health problems. Many health problems.

Recall the times you had an anxiety attack and an upset stomach. This is just one example of how stress causes digestive problems. Let's have a look at how stress impacts your digestive system and what you can do about it.

To find a solution, it's necessary to understand the problem, let us begin by knowing what stress does to our bodies.

What happens when our body is stressed?

The natural state of our bodies is being calm. When there is an external stimulus, our body produces a physiological response to it. Our body releases the hormone cortisol which initiates the fight or flight response.

If you've noticed, when we are stressed we are more alert, our breathing is faster and our blood pressure is elevated. These responses are nature's way of dealing with a threat. The body goes back to its natural state once the threat is gone or dealt with.

But during these modern times, our relationship with stress is a never-ending one. Every day our stress grows with approaching deadlines, meetings, presentations, and assignments. This takes a toll on our physical and mental health. Our digestive system also takes a hit because of this constant stress.

How stress affects your digestive system

The gut is often called the second brain of our body. This is because our digestive system relies on the same types of neurons and neurotransmitters that are found in the brain and spinal cord.

The gut and the brain are constantly interacting and communicating with each other. This "gut-brain axis" could be the reason why psychological or social stress causes digestive problems. When we are stressed, its effects can be seen in our gut.

One might experience the following digestion-related effects due to stress:

  • Dry mouth and throat
  • Feeling nauseous
  • Rumbling of the stomach
  • Feeling constipated
  • Acidity and acid reflux in the stomach
  • Sudden diarrhoea
  • Vomiting
  • Stomach ache
  • Loss of appetite
  • Cramping
  • Imbalance in gut microbiota

When a person is stressed, his fight or flight response is triggered. This sends a message to the gut to slow down the digestive process and focus all energy towards the problem at hand. This can lead to the occurrence of the above effects.

Stress causes oxygen flow to the stomach to decrease and may cause the knotted feeling in the gut. You might have experienced a stomach ache when facing a challenging situation, like public speaking. Now you know why that happens.

Persistent stressful situations can worsen matters. The issues always start small, but when they're ignored over a long period of time they can lead to serious gastrointestinal disorders. These GI tract diseases are usually chronic and require medical attention and lifestyle change to get better. Here are some of the most common GI diseases that can be aggravated by stress.

  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease
  • Inflammatory Bowel Syndrome
  • Peptic ulcer
  • Gastroesophageal Reflux Disorder

Read More: How does Stress Cause Liver Damage?

Ways to improve your gut health if you're stressed

Now you probably see the merit in putting stress on the back burner. Here are some ways to help you achieve just that.

1. Get regular exercise

Exercise is a great way of getting your body moving and your mind relaxed. Exercise releases endorphins which are these happy chemicals that relax our bodies. They are known to improve our sleep and mood and may help in reducing stress.

Any form of aerobic exercise like walking, jogging, biking, or lifting weights can fill your body up with these relaxing chemicals. You can try practicing yoga for the perfect combination of mental and physical exercise. Yoga is known to relieve stress and calm the mind and body.

Yoga poses are also known to relieve constipation and bloating. So, strike that yoga pose for your gut health!

2. Meditation can help

Chronic stress can lead to burnout and other mental conditions like being overwhelmed, anxiety, and depression. Meditation can help with calming the mind and relieving stress. During stress, the gut microbiota shows severe deterioration.

This can lead to harmful bacteria passing the gut barrier leading to diseases. This causes all sorts of digestive problems like constipation, malabsorption of nutrients, and indigestion. Meditation has proven to help improve the good bacteria in the gut and restore balance. Meditation has also been shown to release calming neurotransmitters in the gut which help in restoring gut health.

3. Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is also one way to reduce stress. It combines elements of MBSR and cognitive-based therapy, which focuses on replacing negative thoughts with more positive ones. Mindfulness is a popular form of meditation.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction(MBSR) focuses on increasing mindfulness through yoga and meditation. It is a meditative therapy aimed at stress management. It has helped people with stress, anxiety, depression and chronic pain, and diseases like cancer.

Practicing mindfulness can bring about mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral changes in people dealing with stress.

4. Put out that cigarette

The nicotine in cigarettes is notorious for causing harm to the intestinal flora. This can cause constipation in many. Smoking can cause digestive issues like peptic ulcers and heartburn.

These issues can be hard to treat as the habit of cigarette smoking makes treatment and recovery difficult. If you often resort to smoking under stress, it is time to rethink your coping mechanism.

5. Choose stress-busting foods

Stress often leads us to unhealthy snacking habits. Eating foods high in sodium, fats, and sugar is not only bad for our gut but also for our overall health. Replacing these foods with some superfoods that can alter our mood could be a solution to stress eating.

  • Snacking on unsalted nuts like almonds, cashews, brazil nuts, hazelnuts, pecan nuts can boost you up with healthy fats and fiber which can be great for your health.
  • Eating fresh fruits like oranges and berries can fill you up with nutrients. Dark chocolate is known for busting stress and relaxing the mind.
  • Herbal teas like chamomile tea, mint tea, rose tea, lavender tea is known to help with stress and bring about peace to the mind.

 Read more : 7 Stretches To Improve Digestion & Ease Constipation


With the world running ten paces ahead of us, we are bound to experience stress in our day-to-day life. But we cannot let stress affect our digestive health. Not anymore! With these tips, being mindful and managing stress should be a little easier.

So, manage your stress and keep your gut happy.


Dr. Jatin Bhide

Dr Jatin Bhide is an Ayurvedic doctor with over 16 years of enriching experience in Marketing and Strategy across OTC/FMHG, herbal medicine and Nutraceuticals (Europe) industries. He did his Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery (BAMS) from Mumbai University, before moving on to do a Post Graduate Diploma in Pharmaceuticals and Healthcare Management.

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